Authors: Mark Ferguson
t started in
the living room of Henry and Gabe’s apartment at 215 Hamilton Street. The room was all mismatched couches and dark wood paneling. An old TV blared from a particleboard stand that had been sitting in the same fetid corner since before they moved in. Mounted into the ceiling was a fan that had never been turned on. Even the slightest breeze would have disturbed the delicate ecosystem of the big wooden coffee table that dominated the center of the room. It was perpetually covered in takeout menus; napkins, paper bags, and plates from Tata’s Pizza; scraps of paper; loose change; dusty-looking Ziploc bags; empty Arizona iced tea cans with blackened joint roaches teetering over their sharp mouths; aluminum takeout tins long since emptied of tacos or french fries, now slowly filling with the refuse of convenience store purchases; a Snapple bottle, its lid twisted tight to prevent the stench of cigarette butts from escaping the scum-streaked topiary.
It was the coffee table of inveterate pot smokers, and its general likeness could be found in every New Brunswick house that Gabe had ever visited. Once every few weeks he would get disgusted enough to throw everything away and wipe that table down. It always took two or three passes before the paper towel came up an acceptable dingy brown. If the mess bothered Henry he didn’t show it, possibly because he was barely ever home. He spent most of each day locked in a practice room at Rutgers’s main music building, where he worked to perfect percussion instruments that he would seldom use even if he
become a concert musician.
Gabe was sitting on the periwinkle couch one night, scratching at the loose threads that formed one of its thousands of tiny white diamonds, when suddenly Henry started laughing.
“What?” said Gabe. He had an expectant smile on his face.
Henry responded with a vague shrug of his shoulders and then laughed again. It sounded sharp and thin and out of key.
Gabe thought it was strange, but their nights were always strange. Gabe and Henry designed their time together to counteract and forget the monotony of their days. They strung late hours together, lengthened them with pot and caffeine, and didn’t go to bed until they’d already fallen asleep while watching late-night talk shows or old sitcoms. Neither of them chased sleep anymore. It was easier to let it chase them. The habit had begun when Henry’s ex-girlfriend Val disappeared from their lives the year before. At first Henry suffered from the kind of insomnia typical of the brokenhearted, and Gabe stayed up with him out of solidarity. But even after the pain subsided, the habit persisted.
Henry laughed again.
“What’s so funny?”
Henry smiled and closed his eyes.
Gabe didn’t know what to do, so he laughed too. He laughed until the corners of his mouth burned and his chest ached. It was the forced laughter of awkward parties and run-ins with old acquaintances. It deadened Gabe’s senses and made him feel far away. When he couldn’t stand it any longer he said, “Dude. What the fuck? What are you thinking about?”
Henry acted like he hadn’t heard it. His socked feet were propped on the corner of the coffee table; his hands rested on the pouch of the charcoal-gray hoodie that had become his sophomore-year uniform. He kept laughing, louder and faster until he was almost out of breath.
Gabe just stared. He didn’t care to ask any more questions, so he listened to the organ jazz that flowed out of the little iPod dock in the corner and allowed himself to be lost in the melody, to bounce to the beat. Minutes later Henry unlocked his fingers, waved one hand in front of his face, and nodded his head.
“Okay then,” said Gabe. “Get some sleep. You’re scaring the shit out of me.”
Gabe’s bedroom was right next to the living room. He stood up from the couch, waited for his head to stop spinning, crossed the threshold, and closed the door.
Perhaps the strangest thing about that night was that it didn’t seem particularly strange at all. Not at the time. A lot had changed since their time in the dorms the year before. It was easy to blame that on Val’s departure, but Gabe wondered if that was fair. Long before she showed up, he and Henry had been perfectly able to fill each other’s time without getting high. It wasn’t Val’s absence that was the problem. Not directly, anyway. The problem was that she’d changed them. When they were kids, Henry had needed Gabe. He barely talked to anyone else, even before his dad died when they were in middle school. After that he dug even deeper into his own strange imaginary world, a world that even Gabe couldn’t access with any reliability.
But they stayed friends even as their respective paths through adolescence diverged. When Henry successfully auditioned to be the replacement drummer for a local punk band called Upstart, most of his peers thought it was funny. They couldn’t picture him as a hard-driving punk rock percussionist. Gabe knew it made perfect sense. Henry was defined by the music he played. He didn’t relish performing—he didn’t join Upstart for the notoriety. He did it because Upstart was good. The lyrics sucked and the other kids in the band oozed the faux angst that defined the scene, but they were not just another teenage noise machine. Each member was technically proficient. They were dedicated, well trained. And in that way Henry was a perfect fit.
The first time Valerie Mitchell came to a show, Gabe avoided her. She and Henry were in gym class together and somehow Henry had worked up the courage to give her a flyer. Gabe didn’t want to tell Henry that he didn’t have a chance with Val, so he resigned himself to waiting it out. She would eventually hook up with some other guy or ignore Henry at a crucial moment. Or she’d ask him to drop a hint about her to one of Upstart’s edgier members and Henry would
actually do it
just to be nice. But then he’d quietly implode and Gabe would console him for weeks.
The second time Val came to a show Gabe had drunk two syrupy malt beverages and was practically wasted. He cornered her in the bright hallway outside the community room at the Wayne senior center. “Stop giving him hope,” he said, and he slapped his palm against the wall in earnest emphasis. “You’re killing him.” He felt like crying. He felt like kissing her. He felt like throwing up.
If Val was insulted she didn’t show it. “Take it easy on the hard lemonade,” she said. And then she walked away.
A few weeks later, Val kissed Henry for the first time. In the months that followed she stuck around. Without really meaning to, Gabe grew to really like her. She was warm. She asked Gabe questions about things he cared about and seemed to actually want to hear his answers. She touched his arm when she greeted him and hugged him when she said goodbye. The last of Gabe’s defenses told him that it was all a strategy, that she was simply trying to get him on her side. So he tried to outdo her. If Val was being big, he could be bigger. But what started as artifice became real over time, and his fondness for her bled into his friendship with Henry until he began seeing his old best friend the way Val did. Suddenly Henry didn’t seem so weak or shy or insecure. He wasn’t just the kid who maybe felt things too deeply and needed too much. In many ways that Gabe had scarcely noticed before, Henry was confident and funny, kind and strong.
The three of them grew closer. Their inside jokes evolved into a whole private vocabulary. There were, of course, certain kinds of intimacy that Gabe wasn’t privy to, but over time he got better at ignoring the ache he felt when he considered what Val and Henry did in private. The thoughts that he couldn’t ignore—stolen glimpses of Val’s body and the way her laughter made him feel—Gabe reserved for when he was alone.
They graduated from high school, then all decided on Rutgers for college. The adults in their lives protested—Val’s mother in particular was adamant that Val not make decisions about school based on love—but they ignored the advice, confident in the knowledge that what Henry and Val had would outlast the cynicism. Gabe was just as sure of that as his two best friends were. He felt lucky to be a part of it.
That faith was what made it so hard when Val ended it.
Now, a year after Val left and a week after that first strange night in the living room, Henry was quiet and distant. A perpetual smile sat fat on his lips without ever spreading to the rest of his face. One day Gabe came home from his morning shift at the Magic Dragon hungry and looking for company. He walked in the back door and rushed through the kitchen, willing himself not to see the filth. He dropped his shoulder bag on the couch and listened to the house, waiting for a sign that Henry was home.
“Hey,” he yelled.
He launched himself up the dust-caked stairs, taking them two at a time. At the top there was a bathroom and Henry’s tiny bedroom. Through the open door Gabe could see that Henry was sitting at his desk, intense focus evident in his slack mouth and unblinking eyes.
“Did you hear me?” said Gabe.
Henry didn’t look up, and Gabe saw that he was drawing on a blue-and-pink-lined index card. He
entered the bedroom.
“Do you want to go to Tata’s? Pizza or something?”
Henry sniffled and kept scribbling.
Gabe sat on the bed. From there he could see that three teetering piles of index cards had been pushed to the side of the desk.
“What are you doing?”
Henry didn’t answer.
“I’m drawing,” said Henry. It sounded like an answer but it wasn’t, not really, and Gabe felt a familiar anger, one that had been lurking all week.
Henry lifted his pencil and appraised his work. Apparently satisfied, he put the index card on top of one pile and grabbed a blank one from another.
“Do you want to see?” he asked. The question sounded as though it were rehearsed, as if Henry was trying so hard to sound natural that the opposite effect was perfectly achieved.
Gabe lifted a few cards from the top of the pile closest to him. They were covered in elementary shapes and mathematical symbols, arranged as if by accident. He flipped through them once, quickly, and then again more slowly, willing himself to see something meaningful. He stared at one card so long that the shapes started to shift. Two squares connected at their centers by a thick line spun like bicycle wheels. Squiggles swam by.
He shut his eyes tight and opened them back on Henry. “Cool,” he said. “Um. What is it?”
A single labored exhale was the extent of Henry’s response. Gabe dropped the cards on the bed and walked out.
Soon after that, Henry stopped going to class. He didn’t practice. He stopped drawing cryptic symbols. As far as Gabe could tell, he didn’t bathe or shave or eat, either. He just sat. He fidgeted. He mumbled. Sometimes on the couch, sometimes on the porch, sometimes in his room—but always the same.
Gabe left the house as much as he could, but that didn’t mean he could escape. He spent most of his time curating a list of possible explanations for Henry’s behavior. Maybe it was too much pot, but that seemed ridiculous. New Brunswick was home to some of the most dedicated cannabis addicts on the planet, and Gabe had never heard a single story about anyone losing it quite like Henry had. The music conservatory couldn’t have helped. All year, Henry had spent the majority of his waking moments alone in a windowless practice room. But there were other kids—Henry’s friends in the program—who were doing just fine. And anyway, Henry had practiced for hours each day for as long as Gabe could remember.
The only explanation that seemed feasible at all was Val, but the timing was all wrong. Gabe couldn’t recall the last time either of them so much as spoke her name.
fter the white
cement blocks of her dorm at Rutgers, Val’s new life in NYU’s Greenwich Hotel residence hall seemed luxurious to the point of excess. Her galley kitchen was quaint and homey. In the morning, its single narrow window glowed with the reflected light of the building across the street. The institutional-white paint was offset by the deep gleaming brown of old wood floors. When it was nice enough, Val sunbathed on a pier that poked out into the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty looking on. Even the names of the streets—the building sat between the tree-lined Morton and the cobblestoned Barrow—imbued the place with a patina of old-world authenticity.
Val’s mom, Connie, was resistant to the transfer at first. No school was worth fifty thousand dollars a year, she said.
Val wasn’t discouraged. She knew her dad might join in the melee if called upon, but he’d long been in the habit of leaving the difficult conversations to Connie. So Val set about testing her mother’s defenses. She argued over class size and access to the greatest city on earth (a phrase she repeated as if it were the chorus to a long protest song). She researched NYU’s award-winning faculty and emailed news articles that featured her fantasy professors.
Her mother was unmoved until one day, during winter break, Val accidentally hit on the strategy that would eventually win the war. She was in the kitchen, dressed in the threadbare yoga pants and tank top she’d left in her bedroom drawer when she departed for Rutgers. Now that she was home she relished the opportunity to be completely, unattractively relaxed. Her comfort was disorienting in its familiarity. It made her feel as though her first few months at college had been a dream. When she awoke in her own bed in the home she’d grown up in, she couldn’t quite remember who she was supposed to be.
Whoever was on brewing duty that morning had left the coffee machine on with one perfectly proportioned serving still hot at the bottom of the carafe. It looked gritty and smelled burnt, but Val didn’t mind. She grabbed a mug from the cabinet and filled it.
Her mom came in, sweaty from a run.
“Good morning, love,” she said.
“Morning,” said Val. They jockeyed for position at the refrigerator. Val got the milk and Connie got a half-empty bottle of coconut water.
“You seeing Henry today?” said Connie.
Val poured milk into her mug and kept stirring long after it had merged. She liked the sound of the spoon hitting the ceramic, its tinny clink a comforting distraction from the weight of her mother’s question. She let herself be lost in the sound. It was a habit she’d picked up from Henry. He was always tapping on things, and not in an absentminded way. His constant tinkering was completely focused, as though he was listening for something vital in the sounds he was creating. At first Val had found it annoying. She told him that once, early in their relationship, but Henry acted as though he hadn’t heard her. He was a percussionist, after all, a serious one. He practiced for hours in the evenings, and that remarkable discipline and dedication was one of the things that had drawn Val to him in the first place. His obsessive tapping was a part of that, she figured. Her irritation softened into a begrudging acceptance, then gradually transformed into a full appreciation of the habit.
Once, at the beginning of their junior year in high school, Val and Henry were eating lunch in the school cafeteria when Henry stopped talking mid-sentence and closed his eyes. Val knew better than to ask what he was doing. She closed her eyes along with him and opened herself up to the sound of the room. At first she couldn’t hear past the din of conversation, but she let herself relax into that constant babble until it settled into a uniform layer of warm, bubbling static. Then she began to hear the outliers. Trays being stacked. A sharp burst of laughter. The slightest trace of a background hiss from the central air-conditioning. The buzz of music from the kitchen, how the tinny soft-rock ballads pierced through all the organic noise. Everything grew so loud that she could hardly believe she and Henry had been able to hear each other just moments before. Then she opened her eyes again and the room seemed transformed. The colors of her fellow students’ clothing were brighter, her vision sharper. It felt as if nothing had been real until that exact moment, as if her whole life had only just begun.
She looked at Henry. He was gazing back at her with that grin. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen it. He liked to show her things that fascinated him—works of art, records from his father’s old collection, drawings he’d made—just to watch her react. He would wait for her to be touched by his interest and to transform it into her own, and then he’d smile that same slight smile. It said he loved her and that the secrets of their shared experience were all he’d ever needed, that nobody but she had ever understood him and that nobody but she ever could.
“Val?” said Connie.
“I said are you seeing Henry today? He hasn’t shown his face here since you guys got back. I’d like to say hello.”
“Yeah,” said Val.
“I mean no, I’m not seeing him. We’ve just been talking on the phone.”
“Hm,” said Connie, her intonation calibrated perfectly to suggest a weighty prodding without any specific demand for information.
That single syllable was the sound Val hadn’t known she’d been waiting for. She lifted the mug to her mouth. The coffee burned her upper lip. By the time it was back down on the counter there were tears in her eyes.
Connie approached slowly, as if afraid of scaring her daughter off, and as soon as she pulled Val into an embrace the silent tears became quiet sobs. Val held her mother tight, and Connie slowly maneuvered them onto the padded bench of the kitchen’s bay window.
A few minutes passed. When Val’s chest relaxed enough for her to breathe, she said, “I love him.”
Her mother sighed and swept Val’s hair up from her wet cheeks.
“I love him. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“What’s going on?”
Val looked into her mother’s eyes. She thought hard about what to say, worked her way through the limitless combinations of words that might describe what she was feeling. But to describe it she would first have to understand it, and that seemed painfully beyond her reach.
“I’m just confused,” she said. “We’re together all the time. It’s what I wanted, or what I thought I wanted, and it’s good. I know what to be when I’m around him.”
“What do you mean, you know what to be?”
“I mean I can be myself, but it’s weird. It’s like there’s this one version of me that I’ve been since Henry and I got together. He sees things so clearly, he’s always just happy as long as I’m there. That makes me happy too. But then when I’m not there he gets weird and clingy. It’s like he just needs me so much and even though that feels good I don’t think I need him the same way, and then I just feel wrong, like I’m not the same as him. And then I just feel guilty.”
Connie stood and went to the counter. “Do you have to be just like him in order to be with him?” she said. “You left the burner on.” She flipped the tiny metal switch on the coffee machine and turned to face Val again. “It sounds unhealthy.”
“It’s not,” said Val. It felt like a lie. Or not a lie, but just too simple of a statement to be fully true. “I just feel like everyone else in the dorms is figuring things out. Everyone’s still doing stupid things and acting fake and making new friends and pretending to be cooler than they really are. I don’t think I want to be like that, but it’s weird. Henry and Gabe and me? We just hang out all the time. We have so much fun, and I’m so relaxed, but I’m not changing, you know? I feel like I should be changing.”
“I think you’re perfect,” said Connie.
Val rolled her eyes and used the bottom of her tank top to wipe away the last of her tears.
“I’m sorry,” said Connie, and she smiled. “I know that’s not what you want to hear, but I just can’t help it.”
Val tightened one corner of her mouth into a begrudging grin.
“Why don’t you just tell Henry what you need? He’ll have to understand.”
It was a question Val had been asking herself for a long time. When she was alone, walking to class or going to sleep on one of those rare nights when she wasn’t in Henry’s bed, she felt her isolation with complete clarity. Henry was an island. As a refuge from everything else, his world was ideal. But to live in it all the time—it was exhausting. What if she didn’t need a refuge? What if she didn’t want it? She couldn’t tell Henry that. She feared it would hurt him too much. And anyway, as soon as she saw him again she’d forget her misgivings and fall back into the comfort of his presence.
And then there was Gabe. She and Henry had always spent a lot of time with him, but once they reached Rutgers he was a permanent third wheel. What bothered Val wasn’t his intruding on her alone time with Henry. It was that she found herself wanting him there. He was a buffer against Henry’s intensity. She could joke with Gabe. She could tease him. They could play. Gabe brought that out in Henry, too. That couldn’t be right, she thought, to need her boyfriend’s best friend around in order to stay balanced. More recently, Gabe’s presence had another, more disturbing effect. Val saw how he watched Henry’s face, how he often waited to see his best friend’s reactions before forming and expressing his own. It made her queasy, not least of all because she wondered if she was doing the same thing.
Val couldn’t say any of that to her mom. It was just too pathetic. More than that, it would be an admission that everything both of her parents had told her before she left for school was true. They’d warned her about how being in a serious relationship in college might limit her. Val had insisted that she and Henry were the exception to the rule, and to admit now that they were the rule incarnate? It was embarrassing beyond belief.
Val inhaled as if preparing to sigh or moan. But when she breathed out, her mouth formed words as if by its own accord. “I don’t think I want to be with him anymore.” She looked at her mother to gauge her reaction.
Connie sat back down in the window and leaned against the wall. Her expression was locked in a facsimile of deep concern and sympathy, but Val saw something else there too. The lines around her eyes, her pause, the shape of her pursed lips—it all betrayed a veiled relief. Val would later wonder at how naturally the rest had come. She questioned whether it made her a horrible person. But in that moment, she saw that look of relief as a crack in her mother’s carefully constructed wall. She knew instinctively that she could bring the whole thing down with just a few taps of a well-placed chisel.
“That’s why I want to leave so badly,” said Val. “I just can’t stay, Mom. I can’t. It’s too hard.” She cried again. This time it wasn’t soft and subtle. Connie sat with her again, rocking her as she gasped and moaned.
Through the rest of winter break and in the weeks that followed it, that painful conversation was repeated. Each time, Val grew more certain that she would have to leave Henry. Each time, Connie grew more supportive. Val didn’t fake her pain or her fear. She didn’t have to. But managing the timing of her more extreme breakdowns to achieve maximum empathy from her desperate-to-please mother was, in Val’s mind, fair game. The key was to draw only one exaggerated comparison between her life with Henry and her possible life at NYU. Connie would no doubt prefer the latter given her view that Val’s relationship with Henry was unhealthy. She’d have to accept that staying at Rutgers would make it much harder for Val to move on. So Val applied to a couple of Ivy Leagues she had no business even corresponding with, a few prestigious state schools west of the Mississippi, McGill in Montreal, and NYU. It appeared that she was diversifying, but she knew that NYU would be her parents’ only real choice given its proximity to their New Jersey home. They would sacrifice a few thousand dollars if it meant seeing their one and only child more than twice a year.
Val felt a little guilty when the gambit worked, but not so guilty that she couldn’t savor the victory.
A month after moving into her new dorm, she was in love. She loved the brownstone buildings in the neighborhood around Washington Square. She loved the dramatic arch that guarded the entrance to the park, how it seemed to reach higher and wider at sunset. She was proud to view herself as an insider among the gawking tourist horde. She loved her new friends, loved the fake ID that she’d gotten on St. Mark’s Place and the bars it got her into. She loved that when she sat down in class she wasn’t the smartest, most prepared pupil in the room. The drugged-out, catatonic stares she had grown accustomed to in most of her classes at Rutgers were replaced by faces alight with competitive enthusiasm.
Most of all, Val loved the ease with which she could find herself in situations that were completely novel. Even her mismatched suite-mate—a chipper, blond, Utah Mormon—only enhanced Val’s image of herself as someone who was living the kind of extraordinary life that New York City was meant to provide. She was
and not because she was paired with someone as unusual as Henry.
And as for what she left behind, Val mostly felt relief. In New Brunswick an evening out meant drinking Keystone Light with a bunch of kids from south Jersey and discussing how people from different parts of her home state pronounced words like “water” and “drawer.” She didn’t miss the ugly highways or the hollow school spirit. She didn’t miss being appraised by the pimple-faced meatheads who got stuck with door duty at the frats.
She did miss Henry, though. And she missed Gabe. She wished that her freedom hadn’t required her to give them up. But it had. In high school, the choice between Henry and a more open life was simple. There was so little to miss by allowing herself to be consumed by her love for him. But once she was in the larger world, that choice was significantly more complicated. She didn’t regret ending it. She couldn’t, given what she’d received in return. But in the time since she’d broken up with him in the spring, she had come to regret the way she’d handled the whole thing.