Zog flails under the covers, but doesn't open his eyes. I ask Bradley what time it is, and he tells me 10:20. So I've had a little over four hours of sleep. His message delivered, Brad stumbles back down the hallway and cocoons himself in the bathroom. I close my eyes and lie still for a while, digging through the shreds of my dream, acclimatizing myself to the steady presence of reality. I remain inert for a while, refusing to embrace the concept of passing time. When I hear Bradley turn off the shower, though, I decide my intermission is over and kick myself out of bed.
Zog snoozes on, oblivious. I pull on my clothes as quickly as possible and get right back under the covers. When Bradley enters the messy living room a second time, I rise from my blankets and take his place in the bathroom. A few minutes later, I return to find Zog upright and clothed, and Kathleen on the reassembled couch, donning a pair of red heels - the final touch to her impeccably coordinated business outfit.
I unwrap the remnants of my veggie-burger and eat it sloppily, washing my hands twice afterwards to get rid of all the mayonnaise and ketchup. A thing to appreciate about a cold veggie-burger: no congealed grease. My compadres and I loaf around and complain about our sleep (or lack thereof), and even play a couple rounds of F-Zero, in spite of the few minutes remaining before our appointment with Harry Roth. Still chatting casually, we load ourselves into the van and cut across town, easing to a stop in front of our lawyer's office a mere five minutes late.
Brad, Kathleen, Zog, and I sit in a row of sturdy leather chairs, facing Mr. Roth's desk. He passes a stack of evidence-declaration papers down, and asks us to clarify the contents. In the company of my four ex-housemates, my memories of the rathole named 828A Adams Terrace return easily. In a little over an hour we have filled Harry Roth's ears with exactly the kind of dire recollections and bitter angst that he can use as fuel in the upcoming arbitration.
We chat with him for a while longer, trading confidence and goodwill, and when the huge wall-mounted grandfather clock bongs out the half-hour, we each shake hands with our lawyer and load ourselves back into the van. Our only business for the day concluded well, attention turns to breakfast. We canvass the planned grid of alphabetical Davis streets and eventually realize that our restaurant choices are between lousy, expensive, and lousy and expensive. Brad and Kathleen guide us to an approved chinese eatery, and we gather 'round one of the four tables in the place.
Brad is feeling sick and I am feeling very tired. The two of us eat less than a quarter of the food. Brad discovers a piece of glass in his chicken dish, and Kathleen insists he report it to the waitress carefully. She fears that the eager, smiling girl may commit hari-kari in some back room out of humiliation. We take our time eating, and pull her aside at the end of the meal. She is shocked, and returns from the kitchen armed with the explanation that it was just a stray chunk of plastic from some utensil. Nope - I'd rapped it on the table earlier and we'd all agreed by the sound that it was definitely glass. Oh well.
What Kathleen and Zog can't pack down is relocated to paper boxes. Brad picks up the tab for everything, proclaiming that he wants to spend some money on fun to offset the arduous, boring job he earns it through. My fortune cookie tells me that I will meet someone special at a birthday party, which is prophetic since I may be attending one later in the day.
In a few minutes we are back at the apartment, shedding rain-doused clothing and whining some more about our lack of sleep. The afternoon is dense and gray. We remain indoors for the rest of it, playing F-Zero and talking lethargically. Shannon watches us play the game from a curled position on the couch, laughing with us. She is wearing a low-cut black leotard and a pair of pants, unwittingly revealing a fair mass of cleavage. Occasionally she laughs, causing the flesh of her breasts to jiggle around. Between rounds of the video game, when I have spare time to think, I realize the truth of my words of last night - for her and Kathleen, general body shape almost doesn't matter. The purity of their skin makes their bodies enticing all by itself.
Chasing the thread, I ask myself: Why in the hell is light skin more attractive to me? Just last weekend I made out with freshman Karen, a girl with her shape obscured by corduroy pants but made of that skin. I hungrily licked her face between kisses. Kayla was very light-skinned. Same with Fenna, Kathryn, Eleanor, and Eszter. And of course now I'm fawning over Carolyn, whose skin is nearly the porcelain shade that Kathleen and Shannon wear. Have I ever been as attracted to someone with dark skin? Curious, I think back. The answer is no. How odd.
In the midst of pondering why I would have a preference, and why it would also be a cultural preference in the world at large, I add another realization. I also really like freckles on white skin. Moles, in their dark brown raised bumpyness, no. But a smooth spray of red freckles, however, is the turn-on among turn-ons. Why?
I don't know. So I invoke my general rule for things about myself that I can't explain or analyze: it must come from instinct. Unblemished skin to advertise cleanliness and freedom from disease, perhaps. Freckles to provide camoflauge. Unable to make progress, I stow the dialogue and refocus on F-Zero.
Later, F-Zero grown stale, I am sitting on the couch investigating a rubik's cube. It is the same one I'd played with two years ago in my room at Adams Terrace. Brad looks over and we converse about methods of solving it. Suddenly I realize the lateness of the hour. I dig my watch out of my jacket- it is almost 5:30. Even if I leave for Santa Cruz immediately, I'll be late for the Rocky rehearsal.
Late is bad. Missing it entirely would be much worse. I spring up and start compressing my luggage into the big red cooler, surprising my still lethargic companions. Before Brad and Kathleen are fully aware that I am leaving, I have walked to the van in a pelt of rain and arranged my gear in the trunk.
I turn to walk back to the room for my coat, and see Zog standing patiently in the deluge, holding it out to me. I gratefully toss it in the open trunk, and trade a big, fuzzy hug with one of my best friends in the world. "Hey, good to see you." he rumbled.
"Good to see you too. You'll be okay if I leave you in Davis?"
"Oh sure. Take the train back later. Thanks for swinging by to get me. Have a good trip, huh?" We embrace again, for good measure, and I duck into the back of van and slide the door shut. As I run wire and hook up my headphones, I see Zog turn and walk back into the complex, hunched over against the spray. One of the good ones.
I lever myself over to the driver's seat and crack the engine into life. I run a headphone wire through the hole in the headrest and plug it into the passenger-only jack just behind me. I fast forward the tape to the Cryogenic Studios B-sides. The first beat kicks in as I'm boring through the rain around the I-80 interchange, headed west and south.
The roads are slick and the traffic is bad. I picked a lousy day to race the clock. But race I do, keeping to the smooth carpool lane and throwing the weight of the van around aggressively over Highway 17. I skip around on the tape in order to blast my mp3 dub of Blue Skies just as I pull into a Pit parking space. I'm fighting sleep, and want to be psyched up for Rocky practice and Carolyn. The drizzle and wet outside compels me to spend a few minutes changing into my hiking boots.
I find my backpack, snatch up Carolyn's lunchbag, and sprint up to the Baobob Lounge. Beth, Phaedra, Mike, Carolyn, Tori, Dominic, Ken, and Ru are present, rehearsing the dinner scene. Ken is on the couch with his feet up, reading a book, probably because he has nothing else to do for the evening. He is not in any scenes being rehearsed today. We hug and trade news. He apologizes for missing his flight, but I shrug it off. By Beth's loose tongue I already know the circumstances. I catch Carolyn's eye and set down my things, then take my place on the carpet at the imaginary table and we restart the scene.
I avoid communicating with Carolyn in all but the briefest flashes, suspiciously aware of Beth's curious, furtive gaze. On break between scene changes, I lean over the couch and ask how Tom Stoppard was, and how her weekend was. When these inquiries run their course I sit patiently, restraining my question-generating reflex in order to provoke hers with the silence. As I wait, I glance at Beth in time to see her watching us in a deliberately casual manner. Why do I even give her the time of day when I know how destructive she can be? I endeavor to show her as little public information as possible.
Eventually Carolyn speaks more of Tom Stoppard, provoking another curious question on my part. As we finish that, Beth resumes the practice and we take our positions to hash out the floor show. Carolyn is, of course, playing Columbia. She dances first, then hands the feather boa off to me at the end of her routine, just before I get hit with the "De-Medusa" and do my own dance. I notice peripherally that as she performs the steps, Beth, Dom, and Mike all stare at her bouncing cleavage through her shirt and sports bra. And occasionally Beth looks at me, certain that I will be staring at it too. I just stand in my Rocky pose, waiting for the feather boa.
I don't mind Mike and Dom ogling Carolyn. They're bystanders. Beth's glances at me, however, aggravate me on a fundamental level, and I deliberately try to throw off her jealous intuition. In retrospect this interlude also explains why Carolyn is so leery of being with this group. Half the people in it are wound up with the furtive desire to fuck her blue.
Colleen shows up, taking Ru's place. We repeat the routine several times and then wrap the practice up. Ken leaves with Beth, which raises my internal eyebrows. Sarah and Elena, present for the tail end of the scene, start packing their things up. Sarah leaves for her room, promising to show up at Kate's party later. Elena entreats Carolyn for help on her physics, and I sit opposite her on a big blue couch and add to the explanation. In general, I find that I enjoy cooperating with Carolyn in what she is doing. Each activity seems worthwhile, and every place to help seems obvious.
Understanding dawns for Elena and the snaps her physics shut. "I'm going to take this brick back to my room, and then I'll see you at the party, ok?" she says. I toss Carolyn her shoes, and we pack up and head out. The walk to Kate's Crown/Merrill place is half relaxed and half nervous for me, as I am glad to be so easily beside Carolyn but unsure of her own stake. We move in silence, and I feel that perhaps I am being ignored until she abruptly asks what I've been up to. I tell her about my meeting with Harry Roth, my joy at visiting old friends, and my lack of good sleep. As we climb the stairs to her front door, I finish my tale with the harried drive to UCSC, confessing that I thought it was somehow important that I be at Rocky practice and the gatherings afterwards. That the feelings were in large part inspired by her is something I leave unsaid.
Carolyn knocks and the door opens into a party-equipped version of the Crown/Merrill apartment. The living room table has been moved to a bedroom. The houseplants have all been hidden. Enticing foods and drinks wait in the dining area, including chips, soda, a bowl of peeled carrots and a small tub of raw cookie dough. The christmas lights are on and a few people are already sitting around enjoying themselves.
The first person I spot is Linda, resting against the wall by the sliding door. She's transcribing poetry from a book and nipping into a stash of chocolate covered peanut clusters. "Hello, darling." she says, her usual greeting for me. I walk up and pet her head. She offers me the bag and I toss a few back.
Carolyn vanishes to her room to check answering machine messages and stow her props. Kate gives me a big hug and a "Hey, what's up?". Lisa is in the kitchen adding the finishing touches to a big heart-shaped chocolate cake. I walk over and ask her how she's doing, and play with her short pony-tail, as I always do. Lisa will continue to cook food and clean up messes for the duration of the party. It's one of the ways she enjoys herself at gatherings like these - working to maintain them. Being a dedicated host is part of her self-image.
She finishes washing her hands and goes over to the couch and sits on Neil. Brian is present, the immense curly-haired viking genius, and he tickles Lisa to see her very loud, flailing reaction. Neil scolds him, saying that since he's not allowed to tickle her right now, no one else should be allowed either. Brian grins and shrugs, and gets pulled into a wrestling match with Kurt and Colleen.
Carolyn walks into the living room and sits near Linda. Her friend Rachael has arrived, and she sits down next to her. I lie down on my side in front of them, and Carolyn introduces me, to refresh her memory. I shake hands with Rachael and reaffirm my name to her. We'd last seen each other in early December, sharing tea at the kitchen table with Carolyn.
A discussion begins about Carolyn's recent emotional stress. I occasionally add my thoughts to it. It's territory she and I have already been over together, now a discussion between her and Rachael. Occasionally I check back with them to toss in a few words, but mostly I wander around the room acting nutty with people.
Mayhem transpires. Scott arrives and is well received. He works his way through the crowd shaking hands and hugging and finally gets to Carolyn, and he all but leaps on top of her. Watching Carolyn's reaction, I realize that because he's Scott, this behavior is acceptable. They talk for a few seconds and then Scott jumps up and starts convincing everyone to dance.
The party starts swinging. More mayhem transpires, then some wrestling. Carolyn dances to the 80's collection. Kate puts on some techno, and I play the drum and groove to that. Someone (Colleen's John perhaps) shows up with a twister mat, and we play many rounds of twister. I have more fun MC-ing than playing. Carolyn plays a game eventually, and I zerbert her and the other remaining player.
As all this happens, and for a while afterwards, she and I have a meandering conversation. She mentions that she bought the collection of Tori Amos videos, and will watch them a second time soon. I ask to be involved, and she accepts. We talk about our health, and emotions. Prozac is the focus for a while, and I talk about my sisters' experience with the drug. Somehow we begin talking about manipulation, and I admit to her that I was subtly manipulating her when we first met, but that it was because I was desparete to get to know her. I declare that I always want to be straight with her, and as open as possible. Besides, I know she is as good at - or better than me at - detecting manipulation and resisting it.
We talk about entropy, and the nature of the universe, and probability. College student stuff. Somehow that becomes a discussion about camping. From there we broach the subject of parents. She asks me, "What do you think is a good cure for depression?" I tell her I don't think there is a cure, really. Sarcastically, she replies with "Sure there is! Just take lots of lithium!", and makes bug-eyes. I give a hearty laugh.
We talk on and on. I end up with my back resting on a crumpled jacket against the wall, and Carolyn comfortably encased in my lap and arms. I realize that the party is almost over when Linda asks me to lean forward so she can retrieve her jacket. I shake her hand goodbye, and notice distantly that for the first time, people besides Kate have seen Carolyn and I wrapped around each other. Does this mean that Carolyn is relaxing around people? Not obsessing that semi-public affection is a sign of scandalous exploitable weakness? ... Or maybe she just forgot for a second.
Eventually the only people left are the housemates and Ken. Kurt and John are having an amicable discussion on the living room couch. The coffee table has also been moved back. Carolyn realizes that she should eat, and I experiment with semi-frozen strawberries dipped in sugar. Not as good as I remembered them. Carolyn sits down in a living room chair next to Kate, and they begin talking. I observe Ken collapsed on the floor, with his bed halfway assembled. I take his glasses from his hand and set them on the table, then pack them in his coat and jacket, which I lay on a chair. I unfold the pad and he steps onto it, dazed. A few blankets from the closet make a snug cover for him. He asks me to take him back to his place if I leave for Watsonville, but I decide to let him sleep the night undisturbed.
I notice how loud the music is, and dig my Hans Christian Surrender CD out of the other room. The subdued melodies of the cello ooze up the walls. Tenderly I pack the covers in around Ken's exhausted form. Carolyn and Kate are still sitting in their chairs discussing the success of the party. I look around for things to do; a jittery desire to do cleanup chores has gripped me. I want a sense of completion to buffer the impending relaxation I seek. I walk into the kitchen and put away the milk left out. I clear some trash off the table. I rub my eyes with my hand, wandering back to the living room. Okay, now I can relax.
I approach Carolyn and fall gently to my knees, grasping her right leg. I place my forehead on it briefly. One of her hands reaches automatically down and I take it in mine. Leaning sideways against the edge of the chair, upright between Carolyn's spread legs, I face Kate and listen to the discussion with heavy-lidded eyes. I enjoy Carolyn's touch, but the feelings are diluted by the rapidly growing soreness of my ribs against the hard wooden lip of the chair.
I lift one hand and pull it over Carolyn's body, so it grasps her other leg. In doing so I turn to face her, and from my kneeling position I lean forward, collapsing gently onto her stomach. I tilt my head to the side and wedge my right ear against her right side, in the hollow between her leg and the underside of one breast. I move my hands up and slide them behind her. She is scooted forward slightly, and I pull my hands into fists to fill in the space between her back and the chair. I am essentially embracing her in a big, low, bear hug, my body posed as if in prayer. Carolyn accepts my movements, and lays one arm over my back, and scratches the hair at the top of my neck with the other hand. I hear and feel the warmth of her body and the pleasant attention of her touch.
I am happy.
I breathe in a succession of deep, contented sighs. I stay like this for a good while, drinking in the time, deeling that this has made the dangerous trip back from Davis worthwhile. I purr. I emit little humming noises occasionally, unaware I am doing it at first, then accepting of it.
Kate and Carolyn continue to discuss the evening, and Kate makes a list of all the people who attended. The total was around 30. The subject switches to a particular guest that Kate knows is interested in her, and then to relationships and boyfriends in general. I haul my head up to add a comment or two, then nestle myself back in Carolyn's arms. The CD ends, and the conversation moves on over silence.
Kate mentions that, though she feels annoyed at not having a relationship right now, she is still glad to be hanging out with the two of us, as we are both very good friends of hers. I realize that Kate is seeing Carolyn and I through our current actions, and they are the actions of two compassionate, comfortable, and affectionate people. Distantly I regret Ken not being awake to observe this so he could finally understand that Carolyn and I do more than philosophise and angst.
Eventually I pull myself out of my happy position, because my lower back is getting sore. I get a drink of water and sit down near Carolyn's feet again, one hand casually in hers. Kate and I talk for a while. Carolyn gets up to go to the bathroom, and I sit in her chair. When she returns she complains of being cold. She picks up her blue sweater but it is by the window and is very chilly. Instead I pass her my grey one, which she and I have been resting against since it was draped over the back of the chair. She puts it on and sits on the floor in front of me, then I pull her up and she sits on the edge of the chair instead, wrapped between my knees and in my arms. I hug her to me and we continue the discussion with Kate.
Occasionally I press my head to Carolyn's and breathe in. I find a light shampoo over her general scent, but her smell is the same as ever. I inhale her hair. "Haystack indeed." I say, severely, as if in disbelief of whoever said it.
Carolyn hears. "Yeah, who was it said my hair smelled like a haystack?"
Instantly I remember that it was I who said it, only a few weeks ago. "Oh, it was me." I reply, a bit surprised at myself, "But was I making any sense?" I smell her again, "Hmmm...", and shrug, discarding the thought. It was just some random impulse. I give her a neck massage, holding her head up deftly with the other hand.
Eventually Carolyn and Kate grow tired. Carolyn slides down from my arms and rests against my legs, and I lean forward and run my hands affectionately over her tired face and through her hair. In the end I simply sit, with my head turned to the side and resting on top of hers, and my hands cradling the sides of her face. My eyes are shut but I am aware that my expression is not blank. My mouth is set and eyebrows knit in a cast of vital affection and contentedness. I don't know if it's normal for one to keep suddenly noticing one's own expressions or feelings, like they have to be realized and acknowledged instead of just felt. But it's what I've always done. And here and now, I realize, I am feeling quite happy. I am enclosing a precious piece of my existence in my arms, with my attention, and the heat from my body.
Do I live for others? Part of me does. Is living for others living dangerously? Yes.
Kate decides to turn in, and she gets up and moves to us for a hug. As one unit, Carolyn and I hug her, our hands moving to her back and petting her hair. She comes into our little glowing circle, and we bathe her unabashedly in it, sharing it with her. I can almost see the warm glow, and I can certainly feel it. Kate stays with us overlong, which we don't mind.
I remember being in Kate's position a few years ago with Skot and Torrey. I visited their apartment to watch movies and stayed with them for most of the night. Between the two of them I perceived a safe glow, and it was an oasis to me. I laid next to Skot with my head in Torrey's warm lap, her hands massaging my temples, and listened to the two of them talk. I understood that warmth and took it in as much as I felt allowed, using it to sustain me while I tried to establish it elsewhere, for myself. I never felt jealous of them. They were both far too good to me as friends for that. I do remember feeling a twinge of discontent with myself though. I was trying to learn that safe glow, trying to see more clearly how it was generated and why. I appear to have learned from them.
And now here I am sharing that glow with someone, and here is someone trying to learn it from us.
Carolyn and I slowly slide to the floor and continue our discussion for a while longer. Finally we both decide that it is very late, and we should go to bed. I debate staying the night at the apartment, and decide it would be more comfortable in my own bed at home. Once again we look at Ken and decide to just let him sleep.
Carolyn takes off my sweater and I put it on, and she puts on her own. We are standing in the antechamber by the door to her room, leaning on the walls, saying little. On a random impulse I reach out for the strings that tie her hood on her sweater and start playing with them. As I look at her, my eyes wander over her face. Suddenly I realize that I am doing the following: Staring quietly at her lips, and tugging gently at her clothing. Oh dear. A pretty overt combination of signals that I want to kiss her. I hadn't even thought about it.
I twitch in surprise and drop the cords of her sweater. Carolyn asks what that was about, but I decline to answer. What good would diffusing the possible manipulation be if I made it an even more overt manipulation by explaining it? I hedge carefully around it and ask her when we can get together to watch the Tori Amos videos.
We sit for a few minutes in the living room, hashing out our schedules, and agree on 8:00pm Tuesday as a good time. We've already hugged quite thorougly just a while ago, so I just pat her on the back as I leave.
The drive home is a daze of tiredness, but as usual, I am awake enough to keep from danger. At home I go to the bathroom and make some soup, a few final preparations before bed. Standing in the kitchen I pull the edge of my sweater up to my nose and discover that Carolyn's scent is everywhere on it. Just before I climb into bed, I look at it slung over my chair. That will not do. I pick it up and wrap it around my pillow instead, and fall asleep in a cloud of that smell. I can't remember my dreams, though sometimes that is best.