Authors: Mark Ferguson
He didn’t bother to think through all the implications of what he planned to do next. He was well past trying to predict exactly what changes would occur with another intervention. New Orleans taught him that. Once he took action, everything would be different. And that was all that mattered.
He had to get 41 back on his side. It was the only way he could think of to escape his amnesiac terror. Even if it meant lying. Even if it meant becoming that manipulative son of a bitch he’d so hated when he was 41’s age.
It was a gray and muggy day of the kind that occurs only in late summer when the earth has begun to express its longing for fall. Henry spent the morning in the usual way, but he had a feeling that something was different. He remembered that day better than the rest.
When 41 woke up from his afternoon nap he came downstairs and rinsed his face in the kitchen sink, then took a long drink from the faucet. Henry watched the whole thing from his place at the end of the kitchen table. When 41 was finished he gasped for air, turned off the sink, hobbled to his customary chair, and sat down with his arms folded protectively in front of him.
Henry was scared, but he tried to look stern and inscrutable.
“I want to go home,” said 41.
“Take a shower,” said Henry.
“I’ll shower at home.”
“You’ll shower here.”
41 was so still that he looked like he wasn’t even breathing.
“Once you’re cleaned up,” said Henry, “we’re getting you out of the house.”
“To go home.”
“There’s nothing for you there. You know that. You can spend the rest of your life regretting this, hating me for it. Hating yourself. Or you can try to get it all back.”
“You said that was impossible.” He wore defiance like a mask. But he was curious, Henry knew. How could he not be?
“I did say that. And it probably is,” said Henry. “But it’s like you said. We have to try.”
t would have
been so much easier if the sex had been bad. Val might have told Gabe it was a mistake and simply moved on. But she had liked it, despite her guilt. She wanted more.
Her relationship with Henry was never centered on sex. He was so sensitive, always afraid of doing the wrong thing. Gabe was different. There was nothing apologetic about the way he touched her. He did what he wanted, and it made her feel grown-up in her desire.
Comparing the two of them made her queasy. They were so much like brothers. Now she’d lost her virginity to one and fucked the other. She could put it in nicer terms, but
was the only word that applied. What she and Gabe had done was too hungry and clumsy to be called anything else. That first morning after, a few stops away from New Brunswick, the guilt was so strong that she nearly convinced herself to get off the train in Secaucus. She could transfer there to a line that would take her just a few minutes from her parents’ house. Her mom could pick her up, and when she got home Val could curl up in her old bed and sleep for days. When she awoke she could take down all her old posters. Paint the room. Go through all her old notebooks and journals. She wanted to wallow in nostalgia, to swim deep in it and allow it to swallow her whole.
But she stayed on the train. She relived the night in her imagination until her body got loose and rubbery.
That night she couldn’t sleep, so she gathered her laundry and a couple of textbooks and went down to the basement of her building. She read while the machines clicked and whirred around her. Whether out of exhaustion or distraction, she couldn’t let the sound be. Usually the machines provided the kind of white noise that made it easy to concentrate fully on her work, but that night there was a different quality to the sound. It asked for her attention and she found herself identifying with it, personifying it. There was a voice in the room, and it spoke in long, meditative moans punctuated by the ticking of buttons against metal.
From then on, her days were spent waiting. Not for him. Maybe for him. Not
for him. Really, Val was waiting for the hours at night when she could be herself. She was quiet in class, politely refused invitations from the girls who thought they were her friends. Nothing compared to the ease she felt with Gabe. And though she knew that some effort might yield the kind of friendships she really wanted, it seemed like so much unnecessary work. She talked to her roommate, too, but Kara focused on Val the way she would a soap opera. She grew strangely attached to the stories Val told, as if she were feeding on them. And then, whenever Val was done speaking, Kara spoke in platitudes.
If it’s meant to be…You can’t beat yourself up over it…The heart wants what the heart wants.
Val would just nod. It would have taken too much effort to disagree.
She was happy, but her guilt persisted. She preferred thinking of herself as the college girl who was in love, but Henry still hadn’t been found. Each day that passed made it more likely that he was never coming back, and Val felt a responsibility to be the mourning ex-girlfriend. She saw proof of her iniquity everywhere. In Kara’s eyes for certain, though Kara couldn’t help it. Val was more worried that she’d begun to see that same reproachful look on the faces of strangers. As if the whole world just knew.
She never talked to Gabe about her guilt. She would suffer alone. That was what she deserved. But that was being too generous. Really, she didn’t tell Gabe how she was feeling because she didn’t want to ruin her time with him. She wanted to laugh and eat and drink and have sex. She saved her regret for when it wasn’t interrupting anything more enjoyable.
It was a Thursday night, a month after Gabe and Val’s first night together. Kara was getting ready to go out to a party at the Sullivan Room—a party that she’d begged Val to attend with no success. When she first started at NYU, Val was one of the ringleaders, always doing internet research on the right places to go, suggesting groundbreaking destinations like the Upper East Side or even
. Kara had only ever been invited along because of Val. Now Kara was fully a member of the tribe Val had basically started, and Val herself was on the outskirts, the subject of whispers and rumors. She tried not to mind. She deserved all that, too.
Kara walked out of her bedroom. She had recently been experimenting with variations on the Mormon dress code. She still wore knee-length skirts, but the wider denim ones she’d always favored had been replaced by stretchy skintight numbers that hugged her hips and thighs. And as for her initial ban on sleeveless tops, it had apparently been lifted. Kara was wearing a semi-sheer blue tank, her black bra showing through.
“Damn, girl.” Val laughed and gave a low whistle. “Look at those arms.”
“Shut up,” Kara said, smiling.
“I thought you were saving those arms for marriage.”
“Maybe I’m getting married tonight.”
They laughed. Val was on the couch, eating from a brown paper takeout container.
“You should come tonight,” said Kara. She tried to sound casual.
Kara went to the bathroom to do her makeup. When she came back a few minutes later, she grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and the sound of reality show contestants screaming at each other went mute. Val looked down into her food and sighed.
“You’re coming tonight.” Kara literally put her foot down with a petulant stomp. Val thought it was cute.
“I don’t want to.”
“You’ve been sitting around for weeks. When Gabe is here you’re all excited. That’s great and everything, but when he leaves you act like your whole world is tumbling down.”
“That’s not true,” said Val.
“I’m not judging you, okay? I don’t think I can understand what happened with your ex, and I don’t think I can understand what’s happening with Gabe.”
“You’re right. You can’t—”
“Don’t be mean to me, Val. Please.”
Val threw her head back and rolled her eyes. “Sorry.”
“I’m trying to help you. When you first got here all you talked about was wanting to experience something new. Something that you’ll never get the chance to experience again. I think you’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch VH1 and eat leftovers.”
Val thought about the evening stretching out in front of her. She couldn’t imagine feeling much different regardless of where she was, but she knew Kara was right. For all the joy she was taking in her life in the city, she may as well have been living in New Brunswick.
It was that thought that got her up off the couch.
Val powered through her getting-ready routine in just under forty-five minutes, but they were still late getting to the restaurant. Even so, their group waited almost an hour to sit down to tapas. Val wasn’t hungry, but it irked her. She might have once found it charming and exciting and adult to wait that long for a table, but now it seemed ridiculous. She pushed her way to the bar and ordered a drink. Once she was back among her friends, the conversation eventually turned to her. She could tell that Kara had been keeping everyone up to date, because there was a reluctance to their curiosity, as if a question as simple as “How are you?” might be too personal to ask.
When they finally sat, Erica insisted on ordering for everybody. When Val had first met Erica she thought they might turn into best friends. Now they hadn’t spoken in two weeks. A parade of small plates appeared before them and Val picked absently at the meatballs, the crispy boquerones, the bacon-wrapped dates. She drank the wine, too. It was cheap and too spicy. Her throat burned. By the time they completed the exhausting process of splitting the check, getting change, and actually paying, the room felt fuzzy and thick. Val heard herself laughing and offering up opinions she hadn’t known she held. Her mind was mercifully quiet, and she felt relaxed and happy and completely removed. Best of all, she was only dimly aware of the guilt that had been plaguing her since she’d started seeing Gabe.
They relocated to an NYU hangout on the same block as the Sullivan Room. Val drank sangria and danced. College boys made their way into her pulsing circle of friends as if by osmosis. Val felt no connection to the dancing, slurring animal through whose eyes she was watching the world, but that didn’t bother her. A guy finally managed to break her away from the pack. He was respectful, his hands going no further down than her hips.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he yelled.
It hurt Val’s eardrum, and she pushed her shoulder against the side of her head. The only answer that she could think of was
I don’t know,
but she didn’t dare say something like that out loud.
The boy went to get her a drink, and she gravitated back to the girls. They enveloped her and laughed teasingly. She smiled and continued to sway, held upright by the bodies around her. Another drink was placed in front of her and she felt a hand on her waist. She leaned into the touch and felt the hand grip her in response. It felt good. She took a large sip of whatever was in the cup. Its chalky aftertaste reminded her of the candy necklaces she loved as a kid.
“What is this?” she shouted, to no one in particular. A voice from behind her said something about bulls and vodka. She giggled.
“I hafta pee.”
She was suddenly in a bathroom stall. It was quiet and dim, the single lightbulb over the mirror obscured by the stall door. She closed her eyes and put her face in her hands. Her elbows dug into the flesh right above her knees, and she could feel her feet tingling from the lack of circulation. Some timeless moment later she found herself at the sink, drinking water from her own cupped hands. When she lifted her face to the mirror she saw a pretty girl who she knew to be herself. Water trickled down the girl’s chin in a single line that reached all the way into her cleavage. Val tried out a few different expressions and watched as the girl in the mirror followed suit. She laughed, then set her nose close to the surface of the glass and stared deeply into her own eyes.
She opened the door and smiled warmly at the girl who had been waiting to get in. Walking back to her friends, Val wondered if she looked as off balance as she felt.
Kara grabbed her by the arm.
“Where have you been?”
“I had to pee.”
“You’ve been gone for, like, fifteen minutes.” Kara rarely showed anger, but Val could feel it in the force of her grip.
Val shrugged. “Let’s just go.” She walked away.
Kara called after her. “Don’t be mad at me.”
Kara, just stop.”
“Stop what? See? You
mad at me.”
“Don’t get all fucking weepy. We’re having a good time. All right?”
They made their way out onto the sidewalk. The rest of the girls were out there already, blowing smoke into the street. Their bodies were all configured in precisely the same way. One foot angled out. Hip crooked with an air of impatience. One arm crossed in front of the torso beneath the breasts, its hand pinned against the body with the elbow of the other arm, which reached up and ended in the glowing point of a burning cigarette.
Val struck the pose, brought two fingers to her mouth, blew a few fake puffs. She laughed.
“Is she gonna be okay?” Kara asked, but nobody heard her. She put her arm around Val’s shoulders and they followed the group down the block.
Under normal circumstances Val would have walked away the minute she saw the line to get into the Sullivan Room. But drunk and tethered to Kara, with nowhere to escape, she waited patiently. The chill felt good, and she was slightly sobered up by the time they got to the door. Inside, a soft green light emanated from the walls, but the roiling center of the room was in shadow. Val squinted through the dark. Someone handed her a drink. She didn’t want it, but then Kara said, “You don’t have to drink that. Just come dance with me,” and Val put the cup to her lips and downed it with irrational defiance. As soon as she finished swallowing she wished she hadn’t.
She pushed into the crowd and danced with her eyes closed, her stumbling body held aloft by the party but removed from it. The music was so loud. Voices yelled from all around her, struggling to fight with the noise from the speakers. It all converged into a single, endless crashing like the sound of a wave from underneath the water. Val felt a hand on her back. It pulled her body forward until she was nestled against a man’s chest. She liked the way he smelled. When she opened her eyes she saw that the shirt against her face was a pale blue. Chest hair, thin and brown, showed at the open collar. She hadn’t looked at his face yet and was embarrassed to do so now. She didn’t really care. She was being held without any expectations or responsibilities. She hummed softly and swayed to the endless progression of indistinguishable beats until it occurred to her that she’d perhaps been asleep.
“Let’s go,” said a voice. It was coming from the mouth of the man in the blue shirt, not a demand but too forceful to be a polite invitation.
As the man pulled away to lead her, she finally looked at his face. He didn’t look like she thought he would. She wondered what she’d been expecting and surprised herself by thinking of Henry. The hand on her back had, briefly, been his hand. She thought of Gabe, too. The chest had been his chest. It was funny and sad, but then Val remembered that she’d just been propositioned and that she was painfully, blissfully drunk. She let go of Henry and Gabe and everything that had brought her to this particular moment. It was easy. The blue-shirted man was handsome enough, and older. He had just a trace of a beard and his hair was somewhere between clean-cut and shaggy. Little curls framed his ears and he was smiling, she thought. It was difficult to get a full picture in the shifting light.
They made it to the wall and wedged themselves between two other couples. “I didn’t mean to be forward,” he said. “I just thought—”
“I thought it too,” said Val. “But let’s rest here and then keep dancing.”