I mull over my feelings as I wash up and dress. I repair the zipper on the bag with some struggle, and then roll it up and toss it on the couch next to the folded blanket. Just as I am about to go in and have some parting words with Eszter, she mumbles "okay," and commences extricating herself from bed. She often mutters to herself like that. I walk in and she is lying there looking up at me sleepily. I can't help but think that it is a charming image.
She apologizes for the answering machine noise earlier in the morning. "Oh, don't worry about it," I say. "I can't hear a thing with my earplugs in."
Gingerly I touch her hand, and thank her for use of the couch. There is more I want to say, but I don't dare say any of it. Feeling twisted inside, I leave the aparment and walk to Ken and Jeremy's lounge.
Ken is still asleep when I get there. Chris hugs Ken to her under the covers, discussing whether he still wants to drive over the hill or not in his sick condition. Jeremy is awake and preparing to go have breakfast. I ask if I can come along with him, and during the course of our coversation Ken wakes up and authorizes use of his ID card to get me in. Jeremy locates it and I put it in my pocket.
Carding in is easy; the girl at the desk never glances at the picture. In the dining hall I grab a tray and a plate in roudabout fashion, and gather melon slices, potatoes, eggs, french toast, and a small bean-and-rice taco upon which I lay a strip of roast beef from the bin on one side. Colleen calls me over to her table, and Jeremy sits down next to me, and we set in to our food. I pause once, mid-conversation, to dash up and greet Jen, who is working the omelet section.
I chomp the end of a melon slice that I've skewered on a fork, and then turn to Jeremy. "So. J-Man. One of the main reasons I wanted to eat breakfast here was to have a mano-a-mano chat with you about something."
Jeremy sets down his drink. "Well, how sensitive can it be?" he asks. "It's probably not about anyone I know, so..."
"It is about someone you know."
I tell him that I'm confused and don't know where to head next, but I can't take the conversation any farther with people sitting at the table, and I don't think I can take it farther in any case, because I can't find a tactful way to express my confusion. I give up, and we chat about other things for a bit before we stroll back to the dorms.
I hand the ID card back to Ken, who is still lying prone in his bunk. He stares at the card dully for a while before realizing what it is. Poor sick guy. He only has a few more minutes to himself before many people start arriving again.
The group is smaller and more refined than yesterday. Some different people show up, including Aubrey and Emily of "The Coalition". Jen and Eszter are absent. Lisa arrives with her boyfriend, who is fated to vanish before we can get on the road.
Kat arrives through the outside door, shouts my name, and opens her arms. I walk into them and receive an extremely fierce hug, Kat pressing her body tightly to mine. This is the prize you get for knowing Kat. At least, if you're a man, it's like she's saying, "Hey, I know you! How you doin'? Have an award!" Speaking as an evolutionary psychologist, I think it's quite clever.
We untangle and chit-chat for a while. She asks if Zog is here too, and I regretfully inform her that he is up in the Bay Area today. Too short of notice to bring him. "But," I say to her as an aside, "I could tell him that you said hello." I am waiting for her to smile or at least say yes, because I'd figured she is interested in him, but she shrugs instead. Don't know what that means. Then she's off into the group to greet people.
I change the film in the camera and snap a few pictures of Phaedra with Mike, and Lisa with Matt, as well as the requisite lunatic shot of Jeremy. Colleen and I wrestle around a bit. Someone turns on South Park just as Cartman is about to sing Kyle's Mom is a Bitch in D Minor, and we all join in, standing around the television set in the lounge like carolers. Monkey business ensues.
I walk out onto the stairwell and Kat is there. Rebecca is hugging Jeremy and grinning, while Jeremy talks with a few members of The Coalition, standing around Kat. I put my arm around Jeremy and Kat ambles up, and I put my arm around her. She turns and buries her face in my neck like a puppy, and we rub heads together. I give her a back massage with the one hand, and she makes little noises to accompany it. Good grief she's affectionate today. Jeremy and Rebecca and Kat and I chat for a while. Jeremy grabs my camera and asks the rest of us to pose for a picture, so we gather around one of the cement walls.
For the second time we orchestrate transportation for the masses, and I end up driving over the hill with Kenny and Jen in the back seat, and Colleen in the front seat with a birthday cake across her lap. During the ride conversation, Colleen mentions that she's bisexual, and Kenny notes that he is too. This prompts a car-wide survey. They ask me, and I inform them that though I don't mind either way, I'm actually heterosexual in terms of attraction. Leaning forward between the front seats, Jen proclaims that "Anyone who is not bisexual is actually repressed!"
This irritates me, and I spend about ten minutes shooting holes in her argument until Colleen takes my side, probably to get me to stop arguing with her friend.
Chuck-E-Cheese's is an utterly terrifying place. If I had celebrated a birthday here when I was young, I would have been scared out of my mind. But this is my subjective opinion. The crowds inside were having a generally good time.
Apart from the typical dining booths, there's a large room in the back arrayed with reserved tables. From any of these tables, and the booths on one side of the divider separating this area from the rest of the restaurant, guests can see a curtained stage. Every half-hour, the curtains roll aside to reveal five gigantic animatronic zombies. Chuck himself towers on the left, to one side of a big-screen television, and his four mutant cohorts are lined up on the right.
First we have an oversize italian man with a moustache, about the shape of a giant baby. His name is "Pasqually" and, of course, he plays the accordion. Next to him is a dog in rhinestones and chaps, sitting bowlegged on what at first glance is a barrel of dynamite. Turns out to be cheese. He jerks and twitches and pretends to play the guitar. Propped next to him is a big feathery purple thing with eyes. This tragic specimen is named Munch or Chew or something. He has no neck or arms, but there's a keyboard in front of him anyway. The last gang member is the token female, a blatantly feminine body in a featureless black leotard, topped by a ridiculous bird head. Henny Henning. A poster on the wall depicts her side project, a Janet-Jackson takeoff with the inexplicable name of "Rythm Ration". What the hell does that mean? Rythm Ration? The next poster is worse: Henny is in a provocative one-piece, leaning out a window to wave to the rat, the dog, and the purple thing, who are dressed in gangsta clothing and pointing their fingers around randomly. The caption reads "Positive Posse".
The scene is so alien that I am put in mind of a Venus Fly Trap. After a million years of blind evolution, some organism has grown into the crude shape of a cartoon pizza party for the purpose of eating children. The "band" plays until a couple dozen youngsters wander up, then the doors slam and the ceiling plunges down and caustic bile floods out of the heating vents. The next morning, Pasqually uproots from the stage and mops all the dried bones out the back door. By the afternoon, the "band" is playing again. I wonder how many generations it would take for a weed in the city to mutate into this.
I shake my head to clear it, then help my friends set up. Kat sets a red satchel on the table, containing seven boxes of pizza. Colleen places the cake at the head. Someone breaks out a giant bag of balloons and ribbons.
People lounge around eating pizza for about half an hour. During this time, a lethargic, too-short, "live" version of Chuck comes out with a prop microphone to yuk it up with the nearest reserved table. He can't talk into the mike, but a canned voice is streaming from the P.A. system nonetheless. Five prepubescent girls (I guess boys don't smile wide enough) in matching T-shirts form a line next to him and repeat synchronized dance steps to the beat of the "Birthday Rap". That has got to be the most denigrating job on the face of the earth.
Our crew can't take much more of this, so we take off in groups to the play area. Rebecca tells Jeremy to put his hands out, then dumps eighteen dollars in tokens into his cupped hands. The last of the birthday pot. He doles out stacks to those who will take them, and we all go bananas.
The best activity is on the ceiling. Child-size plastic tunnels suspended from metal braces, with entrance columns extending to the floor. Loose netting dividers and translucent windows in neon colors give the whole network a hamster-cage effect. I snap a few pictures of weirdos in the pipes, and then go spelunking myself. Traffic jams and wrestling matches ensue. Little kids climb all over us. One particular eight-year-old with a name like Shelly attacks me like a wild animal, pulling my hair and biting my back. She sets in to Lisa as well, and Lisa and I decide to flee and hang out by the ventilation duct for a while. Colleen joins us, and we have a nice quiet time until Shelly comes crawling around the corner and discovers us. Instead of attacking, she flings herself into a crosslegged position and takes a miniature set of paints out of her back pocket. She draws a blue happy face on Colleen's cheek. We all take the opportunity to plead with her to remove her shoes sometime soon. Then a half dozen kids show up, causing a traffic jam, and we all decide to exit the maze.
Picture this. I'm at the bottom of a spiral-tube slide, lying on my back with my neck over the edge and the top of my head touching the floor. An eight-year-old is descending my body as though I were a ladder. She has one sneaker planted squarely on the underside of my chin, and is kicking me in the ribs with the other, yelling "YA!" over and over and laughing insanely.
I spot Jeremy about ten feet away, and yell for help. Before he can get there, (Cthulhu er I mean) Shelly has pulled me off of the slide and I'm on my hands and knees about to be ridden like a horse. "WEEEEEYAAA!" she screams. "Ride 'em! Let's go! Nah hah hah hah HAH HAH HAAAAH!"
Jeremy lifts her off and I tell her once again that she has to remove her shoes. Though my hair has been pulled, my back bitten, and my chin battered, I'm not in the least bit annoyed, because none of my injuries feel permanent. I mull this over and guess that it's not just a parental instinct, but a predominantly male one, to act as a training dummy in the interest of a kid's fighting skills. A couple of the girls that were attacked in the tubes talked about it later at our table and agreed that it frightened and disturbed them, and given the choice, they would avoid it.
I plop down next to Kat in a booth.
"What's your major?", the college conversation starter, just like "JOB" in Ultima IV.
I explain the reasons I'm pursuing Computer Science. Then I explain my doubts about it.
"You were in Davis?" she asks.
I tell her about the Statement of Intent to Register, and how I'm a year behind. Should be a senior. Kat is a sophomore. Psychology major.
"How long have Zog and you been friends?"
Ah hah. "Since high school."
"You're the same age?"
"No, he's a year older than me, but not a year behind, so he's graduated Davis already. We lived in an apartment up there."
I think to myself that she IS interested in Zog, at least in more than a passing way. She's working up to the questions in a way that is respectful of my emotions though, which I can respect. So either I'm being coolly manipulated to some other end, or I'm one of a range of people that she's interested in exploring. Either way, she's here, and I'm here, and we're both pretty friendly. So I decide to take it at face value and go with that. This decision takes place entirely within the half-second gap between two sentences in our conversation.
Ken and Jeremy blow out their candles and rip open their gifts. We cash in about 1700 tickets won at the ball-toss, and acquire vital supplies including stickers, shirts, and fake plastic insects. Kat gets a little green lizard on a suction cup, and plants it ceremoniously on her forehead with a slapping sound. I pause to abuse the soda fountain, and then we all take off.
On the way back over the hill, Colleen and Jen sit in the back, and I have a talk with Kenny. A physics major, taking the math class I'm in as a second choice to combining Math 21 and Math 24. We cover many topics within UCSC, discussing instructors and majors. He has a very eloquent and tactful style. There are clearly two sides to him, both of which he can present externally. I'd only seen the nutso, wild-man Kenny, with his fur standing on end. This is the sedate, deliberate Kenny, with his fur combed neatly back.
And I am acting the same. We are ambassadors to our minds. I am quietly pleased to see this part of him intact, where it keeps watch in his head. Without it I fancy we'd both be garden-variety assholes.
Back at UCSC! Whohoo! Everyone is sedate and pooped. On my walk to the dorms I pass Kat, Aubrey, Emily, and Some Other Nameless Girl. This is The Coalition, as Jeremy has labeled it. Further on I almost laugh, because as I was passing by, I'd asked them the general question of where they were going, and their tight-knit walking group had elongated into a line: Aubrey pretty much kept on walking, Nameless Girl slowed a bit behind her, Emily paused longer, and Kat stopped walking altogether, looking straight at me. Their respective opinions of me could not be more plainly illustrated if they'd been wearing hand-lettered signs.
They are going out to return the pizza boxes we'd used at Chuck-E-Cheese's (we'd brought our own pizza on account of Kat working at Domino's and getting a discount). I decide not to go with them almost randomly, though the thought that tips the balance is that Kat and I couldn't possibly pay attention to each other without The Coalition noticing and, in the most Machievellian sense of the phrase, Making Something Of It.
So instead I walk back to the good ol' lounge. Scott and Colleen are there, fussing over a very tired Jeremy, who is splayed on the floor. In a while he shambles off to his room for sleep, and I curl up with Colleen. Scott turns the TV to a comedy routine by Paula Poundstone. I laugh twice over the course of an hour. She's really not all that funny, as her routine consists mostly of complaining about crap and picking on people. Or at least this routine does.
Twice I wander out of the room to see if Kat is home. Once I even knock on Aubrey's door to see if The Coalition is gathered there. I am only greeted by a poem printed out and tacked to the door. It's a repetetive rhyme along the lines of "I am woman, hear me roar", about a half-step away from blaming All Men for the very existence of evil in the world, and I stop reading it halfway through. (Note: The only resemblance this poem bore to the famous song was the title.)
I decide that the poem just about wraps up the evening. I take a slow, thoughtful walk to my car, and drive back to Watsonville. Upon arriving home I march upstairs and directly to bed. Too pooped to do anything else.