Authors: Mark Ferguson
“Okay. That sounds good.” The man smiled. The black-light glow of the room brightened his teeth and the whites of his eyes.
“And buy me a drink.”
He left and she was alone again. A few of the girls danced toward her, arms outstretched, hands digging between bodies to clear a path. Val didn’t move to greet them, worried that if she went too far the man wouldn’t find her again.
“What’s his name?” Erica said. Her voice was hoarse from shouting.
“You don’t even know?” said Erica, laughing. “You slut!”
Val laughed, then pursed her lips. Just as she was thinking how glad she was that her roommate wasn’t there to make her feel guilty and different and strange, Kara appeared at her side. They locked eyes.
” said Val.
“I think we should go home.”
“Why would we do that?”
Kara leaned in closer, her lips almost touching Val’s ear. “You know why. You’re wasted. That guy is creepy, okay? Let’s just go.”
“You think God doesn’t like fucking?” Val turned her head just far enough to see the hurt in Kara’s eyes and the shake of her head. “I’m not coming home tonight, so if you want to go, go. But leave me the fuck alone.”
Val tried to storm away but the bodies were too close. She got four paces before she slammed into a guy with thick hair sculpted into the shape of a meringue. The beer that had been in his cup was now on all over his brilliantly white T-shirt. She pushed past him just as he was calling her a dumb bitch.
The man in the blue shirt was working his way toward her, a drink in each hand. When he reached her she took one of them and gulped it, stopping only once for air. She looked at him expectantly until he did the same.
“I don’t want to dance anymore,” she said. She grabbed his hand and led him away.
ou’re lying,” said
80 contorted his face into a passable facsimile of disbelief.
“Why are you lying?”
“I’m not lying,” said 80. “I can’t be lying, because I don’t know the truth. It’s impossible for us to get back the life we had, but perhaps we can remake the
of life we had. We can have Val. We can have a child with her. It might not be Annie, but we’ll love it just as much.”
Henry’s head hurt. He’d had his share of hangovers, but this was different. He’d been on a bender for weeks. His gut was sour, his muscles burned. He felt as if his body had been scraped out, his insides replaced with wet garbage and the maggots that fed on it. He wanted to go back to bed, but here was 80, propositioning him again. “You don’t care,” said Henry. “You don’t care about getting Val back. I can feel it. You lost her years ago. She’s dead to you.”
“So what do you
80 feigned frustration.
“And why are you acting?” said Henry. “What do you want, 80? What do you want, huh? Henry?”
“A house divided—”
“No fucking sermons!” Henry slammed his palm on the table and regretted it when the sound hit his ears. “You remember being me. Which means you remember how I feel about you. You remember how I feel right now, this fucking hangover…Jesus.” He closed his eyes, laid his forehead on the wood surface in front of him. It was comforting for a moment, but bending over made him want to puke, so he sat back up. “If you respect me at all you’ll stop treating me like a child and just tell me what it is that you want. What’s the new future? What terrible fate are we trying to avoid next?”
“You think this is all my fault, but you’re wrong.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re wrong. You did this with me. We did this together. We’re the same person—”
“We’re not. No more than I’m still five years old or ten or twenty.”
whether we like it or not, whether we agree or not. I didn’t kill Annie. I regret it, what we did, more than I regret anything. But it’s done. And now that it’s done, you have a question to answer.”
“Please,” said Henry. “No more questions—just say what you mean.”
“Do you want a future or not?”
“No,” he said. The answer had come with frightening ease.
“You want to die.”
The corners of Henry’s mouth trembled. “Yes.”
“I was ruined because I couldn’t forgive myself for what I’d done,” said 80. “At first it was just the older me that I couldn’t forgive. That was the easy part. But then I saw my own responsibility and it only got worse.”
“You think you’re mad at me. You should be. You are. But you don’t want to die because of what you lost. Or because I took it from you. You want to die because
are responsible. And we are not two people. Not really. We’re both you. We did this. You did this. And now that it’s done we can either kill ourselves over it—and you’ll choose a slow and painful death over a quick one, I’m proof of that—we can either kill ourselves, or we can find a way through.”
“There is no through. Without Annie, there’s no way through. It will only get worse,” said Henry.
“There is no worse. What could get worse?”
“Your goddamn rhetorical questions—just tell me what you want already.”
“I want us to get 19.”
Henry laughed. “Why? Flames of glory? Is that what you’re thinking? Do as much damage as possible?”
80 hesitated. Henry thought he looked scared.
“Up until now,” said 80, “we’ve been concerned with fixing specific wrongs. And—I know this isn’t the right moment for this—it’s going to sound dismissive of your feelings, like I don’t understand what you’re going through—but I—”
“Please,” said Henry.
“I know.” 80 licked his lips. “We’ve taken a fantastically narrow view of this situation. Out of a lack of imagination or courage, we’ve been stuck on the idea that we could improve our lot in bits and pieces. But now we’ve nothing left to lose. Courage—it doesn’t come into it. To have courage you need to have fear, and whatever else we are right now, we’re fearless, because we’ve already lost everything. We
to die. Perhaps we can find a way to be with Val again, maybe even Annie. But if not, we could at least endeavor to make that sacrifice more meaningful, couldn’t we?”
“It can never be meaningful,” said Henry.
“We are a totally new kind of human. That in itself was bound to cause some suffering. But the worst is over, and the only way to make that suffering worthwhile is to do something with this gift we’ve been given. Something extraordinary.”
“And abducting 19, that’s extraordinary?”
“We come from worlds that are gone. Memories are etched into our brains, memories of things that no longer exist and never will. And they’re torturing us. But for 19, Annie will never be. He’ll have Val for a time but he’ll go on tour, get sick, she’ll leave him, and he’ll descend into sickness for the rest of his life. You know this. You remember it. His future is no future at all. If we change it, the only thing we’re taking from him is the certainty of pain.
“And if we can teach him, teach ourselves, to control this gift we’ve been given, then we’ll have a whole lifetime to explore the possibilities. All that we’ve lost, it will never be worth it. I know that. But it’s done. The past is the past. Most of our past never even was. But we can still have a future. 19 can have a future. He doesn’t have to suffer as we have.”
“So you want to teach him,” said Henry. “You want him to have the power that you have.”
to have it. I want to have spent at least one of my lives exploring it to its fullest. Yes.”
“And Val and Annie—they’re just collateral damage? What you had to lose in pursuit of this grand fucking goal?” Henry found it just unflattering enough to believe.
“It wasn’t planned,” said 80. “I never would have done that damage knowingly. Never. But it’s done, it’s done already. And like I said—19 is our best chance at getting them back. I loved them just as much as you did. You must know that.”
“I still love them.”
Chastened, 80 looked up and at the window above the sink and chewed the inside of his cheek. “Henry,” he said. “I love you, too.”
Henry closed his eyes, shook his head.
“You’re me. We’re one, whether you like it or not. Seeing you like this, it’s absolutely devastating. But the years will ease your pain. That’s just the way life works. I understand that it’s difficult to confront right now, but you can’t hate me for having healed, for having the capacity to look at this situation with fresh eyes, to see opportunity in the loss. I am just trying to share that opportunity with you. With myself. I’m trying to forgive myself and move forward. I’m offering us a way out.”
Henry ran the tips of all ten of his fingers from his forehead to the back of his scalp, as if by rubbing his skull he could massage order into his thinking. “If we succeed,” he said, “I’ll have that power too.” 80 nodded, jaw clenched, eyes on the floor, and Henry saw something there that he hadn’t expected. “You’re afraid of that,” he said.
“I am,” said 80.
“Because of how much I despise you. And what I might do.”
“You should be. And more than any of your other bullshit rationalizations, your fear makes me want to do this. You must already know that. This is just another manipulation.”
“I’m not manipulating you.”
“Then why? Why do this?”
“I want you to trust me. In my experience, the best way to earn trust is to give it. Even when I shouldn’t. Even when it scares me.”
“A house divided.”
t started in
a dark corner of the club. Val and the man kissed on a couch, their writhing bodies feebly lit from above by an old-fashioned wire-filament lightbulb that sat fat like an illuminated bird in a bamboo cage. With her eyes closed, Val could almost forget the smell of sweat and beer. The sound of the room had long since merged into a single endless blast like the roar of a waterfall.
She pulled her face away, gasped for breath. “Is there anywhere else we can go?” she said.
The man nodded and took her hand. They were on the street then, though Val wasn’t sure how. The air was dry and cold, almost painfully quiet.
The man walked ahead of her. She wished that Kara had tried one last time to keep her from going. Now she was on her own, headed toward a kind of oblivion. She would go wherever the man was taking her, despite her fear, and something about that felt cleansing.
They entered Washington Square Park. Val tried to remember if she had ever seen it at night. She looked up as she walked and saw milky orange streetlamps flooding through densely crosshatched tree limbs. Beyond it all was the sky, brightened to a pale purple-blue by the combined light of all the buildings in the city.
“Where are we going?” she said.
The man stopped and turned around. “I’m just in town for the weekend,” he said. “I’m staying at the Washington Square Hotel.”
Val couldn’t think of what to say. She was dizzy from the alcohol and from looking up at the sky, so she lowered her gaze to meet his.
“It’s just on the other side of the park. Look.” He pointed down the path. “You can see it right through there.”
“A hotel?” she said.
He laughed. “Unless you want to stop right here.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I want to stop here.” She stumbled toward a bench, then let herself sink low on the wooden slats until the back of her head was planted on the top rung.
“What’s wrong?” asked the man.
“I don’t even know your name.”
The man had stayed standing. His face was in shadow, but Val thought she saw in it a half-hidden reflection of her own sad confusion. He looked left and right, surveying the path.
“I don’t know yours,” he said.
“Val.” The man looked down and pushed a pebble with the toe of his shoe. “I’m Ed.”
Val swallowed and it hurt her throat. The man sat down next to her.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“You picked an interesting time to start asking questions.”
“Maybe it was the fresh air.”
“Listen, I don’t want to stay in this park.”
“I don’t want to go to a hotel with a man I don’t know.”
“So tell me about yourself.” Val closed her eyes. Her body felt as though it might spin apart and disintegrate. She swallowed again.
“There’s not much to say, really.”
“Are you married?”
The man’s upper arm was pressed into Val’s own. He shifted, perhaps in a shrug,
“Widowed?” she said, then regretted it.
“So divorced, then.”
“You need some water,” he said. “Maybe this was a mistake. I don’t usually do this.”
“Ha,” said Val. “That’s one of those things, you know? Like you say that because it’s one hundred percent true or one hundred percent not true. Never anything in between. Never, never, never.”
“I guess,” said Ed. “In my case it’s true.”
“That makes two of us, then.”
“We don’t have to do anything. I can put you in a cab. In fact, I should probably do that. This was a mistake.” He stood up from the bench.
“I need some water. How old are you, anyway? Ed, how old are you?” She opened her eyes.
“Too old for this.” He paced a small circle, and when he’d completed a full rotation and was facing her again he said, “I’m around forty.”
“Around?” Val laughed. “So vain. I’m around twenty. Don’t you think that’s weird? You look good, don’t get me wrong, and I like how you kiss. But, Jesus”—she laughed—“what am I doing?”
“I really think you should get in a cab. Just, please, let’s get out of this park.”
“I think you should shut up and take me to the hotel bar to get some water.”
“If I do that will you get in a cab?”
“But don’t you want to fuck me, Ed?”
Ed sighed, his shoulders dropping with each cubic inch of air that left his lungs.
“I’m sorry,” said Val. “That was…I guess that was rude.”
He offered her a hand. Val looked at it as though she was confused by its meaning. “Let’s get you some water,” he said.
He grabbed both her wrists and pulled her to her feet.
The hotel had an Old Hollywood art deco vibe. Black and white marble floors, rich red wood paneling, lots of ornate ironwork filled in with stained glass. Ed had made Val take her arm off his shoulder before they walked in, and he insisted that she attempt to walk straight.
Val tried. At least she felt like she was trying.
The concierge greeted them with a polite hello.
Val smiled brightly. “Good evening,” she said, drawing out each syllable in a childish approximation of formality.
Ed fixed her with a glare that only barely hid his amusement. They proceeded to the lounge. Wrought-iron screens with gold-painted accents stood between the tables. Sepia-toned images of long-forgotten starlets stared down from the walls. Above the bar hung a massive reproduction of a de Lempicka painting. Val congratulated herself on being able to identify it from her art history class. She felt older walking into the room, but also younger—grown-up enough to be there but not enough to belong.
A long leather bench reached around the perimeter of the room on one side. Val slipped behind the first table she came to and sank into the banquette. The leather was cool to the touch. She fantasized about putting her face on it.
A waitress came. She was about Val’s age, and she smirked as she handed them menus before stepping away.
“This place is ridiculous,” said Ed.
Val greedily emptied the tumbler that had somehow materialized in front of her. She took Ed’s and drank half before placing it back on the table.
“Feel better?” said Ed.
“I think I should have more.”
The waitress returned. Ed ordered more water, guacamole from the snack menu, and a Maker’s and ginger for himself.
“I feel weird saying
in here,” he said.
“You wanna see who can say it louder?”
“Guacamole,” she said. She laughed. “I think I’m feeling a bit better.”
“Eat some. The longer you stay up, the better you’ll feel tomorrow. Believe me.”
They talked about hangovers and their cures until their order came. Ed swirled a red plastic mixer through his cocktail. Val eyed the condensation on the outside of his glass. She wished she were that cold.
“So if you don’t do this often,” she said, “what were you expecting to find at that club? Women your own age drinking martinis? A jazz trio?”
“And what were you expecting to find? A desperate older guy who would put up with any manner of bullshit just as long as he thought he was getting some?” He stared into Val’s eyes until she looked away. “More water?” he asked.
Val tipped her glass until the ice crashed down onto her lips, sending rivulets of frigid water down her chin. She sucked a chip out of the glass and bit down.
“I don’t know what I was expecting to find tonight,” said Ed. “I’m not a widower. The truth is I’m not divorced, either. But my marriage is over. She cheated on me. I found out. So.” He took a sip of his drink, stared into the glass once it was back on the table. “We were young when we got together. Younger than you are, even, and there are a lot of things I didn’t do. So I guess I just wanted to be in a place filled with people your age. I just wanted to get a taste for what that was like. The simplicity of it. To be without responsibility. I don’t know. It’s stupid.”
Val crunched the ice in her mouth.
“Then I saw you dancing and you were so…unself-conscious.”
“That’s a good euphemism for
“I didn’t know that’s what you were. I thought you were just kind of oblivious, and it made me happy. So I took a chance, danced next to you. I surprised myself, actually. I hadn’t planned on that. I thought I would just see you there and go.”
“I left with you because I’m confused,” she said. “My life is weird.”
Val looked at him. His short cropped beard had spots of gray, the hair on his head still thick. He was attractive, more so than she had thought before. She stared at him, fascinated. “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “Things don’t make sense. I was all excited to move to the city and I had all these plans, like everything about me was going to be different, like I was going to find out that I wasn’t the boring girl with the high school sweetheart and the obsessing parents. New York was just going to pop that right out of me and the next minute I would be everything I’d ever wanted to be. I just wanted to want to be something. I guess it never occurred to me that I’d need to know what it was I wanted to become. This must sound so stupid to you.”
“Yes, it does. Don’t humor me just because I’m drunk. But you don’t know. You don’t know how real things are for me right now. I mean, I wouldn’t be sitting here if things weren’t pretty real.”
“Real?” Ed smiled and shook his head.
“It’s not that.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s just ‘Real.’ I don’t think I know what that means.”
“Well, it’s slang. American. Means super deadly serious or completely genuine, depending on context. Has this not made its way up to your generation yet?”
“I know how you meant it. I just don’t know how I mean it, when I think about it. I was just musing.”
“I was just musing. Yeah.”
Val grabbed Ed’s drink and took one large swallow.
He leaned back fast, his hands up as if she’d pulled a gun. “Jesus, why did you do that?”
“I want to go upstairs.”
“I’m putting you in a cab.”
“I won’t get in a cab.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“It is if I tell the concierge I’m fifteen and you got me drunk and stole me from my parents’ house and please oh please could he call them for me.” She laughed, and Ed looked as if he were trying not to. “I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t want to go home, but I can’t sit up on this thing anymore.”
Ed sighed and placed his chin on his sternum. He took a deep breath in and held it, then looked back up at Val.
“Look at me,” he said.
Val tightened her face into a faux-serious glower and tried not to smile.
Ed didn’t reciprocate, and Val saw that he wasn’t playing at anything. He looked afraid. Val softened her own features and examined his wide-open eyes. Back and forth, one at a time—strange that she couldn’t focus on both of them at once. She noticed a little quiver in the muscle beneath his eye. It stirred something in her, as if she were hearing a song she didn’t know she remembered. The room receded and Val’s whole world filled up with the strange, familiar face in front of her.
“Can I get you anything else?”
The waitress’s voice made Val blink, but it didn’t interrupt her focus.
“No,” she said. “Just the check.”
The waitress walked away.
“Do you understand?” said the man.
thought Val, but she said, “Yes.”
“I’m sorry.” He looked as though he might cry.
“Take me upstairs.”
When they got to the room Val sat on the bed and nervously smoothed the white duvet until her fingers felt numb. The man sat down on a chair next to a marble-top table with the phone and hotel binder on it.
Val had too many questions to pick just one. She looked at him and willed her eyes to see something other than what she’d first seen in the lounge just moments before.
“Am I crazy?” she asked.
The man shook his head.
” she asked.
“Not right now,” he said. He shrugged. The tears that had been forming for minutes finally fell, tracing a path from the corner of his eye to the edge of his lip.
Val lifted herself from the bed and slipped off her shoes. She went to him and placed a hand on his head, traced her fingers over his ear and down the side of his face until the pads of her fingertips came to rest underneath his chin. She applied just enough pressure to lift his face. Looking up at her like that, he seemed younger and even more familiar. She lowered herself onto his lap and grazed her lips across his forehead, his cheek, his mouth. They’d been kissing not even an hour before, but the electricity that gathered on Val’s skin made her feel as though she’d never kissed anyone before.
The man exhaled. Val felt the air rush out of him and across her face, and she leaned her lips against his. Finally he placed his hands on her. One found her back, tracing the bones of her spine, the other rested softly on the top of her thigh.
Val stood up and stepped back to the bed. She turned away from him long enough to pull back the tightly tucked sheets, then turned back.
“I don’t know if we should do this,” he said.
In response Val lifted her shirt over her head and placed it gently on the floor. She unbuttoned the tight black jeans she was wearing. She tried to peel them off gracefully but then lost her balance, tipped back, and sat on the bed so she could get them past her ankles and feet. They both laughed. She stood again and reached her hands behind her back to unhook the clasp of her bra. She slipped the straps from her shoulders.
The man still sat in his chair. Val thought he looked shocked, scared, even, yet undeniably pleased.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he said, and he rose to meet her. He ran the back of one finger down her navel, then grabbed her hips with both his hands. He kissed her.
It was too late by then for Val to do anything but kiss him back.