“So why don’t you go home for vacations?” I asked her.
“I’m just scared of ghosts, Pudge. And home is full of them.”
fifty-two days before
AFTER EVERYONE LEFT; after the Colonel’s mom showed up in a beat-up hatchback and he threw his giant duffel bag into the backseat; and after he said, “I’m not much for saying good-bye. I’ll see you in a week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”; and after a green limousine arrived for Lara, whose father was the only doctor in some small town in southern Alabama; and after I joined Alaska on a harrowing, we-don’t-need-no-stinking-brakes drive to the airport to drop off Takumi; and after the campus settled into an eerie quiet, with no doors slamming and no music playing and no one laughing and no one screaming; after all that:
We made our way down to the soccer field, and she took me to edge of the field where the woods start, the same steps I’d walked on my way to being thrown into the lake. Beneath the full moon she cast a shadow, and you could see the curve from her waist to her hips in the shadow, and after a while she stopped and said, “Dig.”
And I said, “Dig?” and she said, “Dig,” and we went on like that for a bit, and then I got on my knees and dug through the soft black dirt at the edge of the woods, and before I could get very far, my fingers scratched glass, and I dug around the glass until I pulled out a bottle of pink wine—Strawberry Hill, it was called, I suppose because if it had not tasted like vinegar with a dash of maple syrup, it might have tasted like strawberries.
“I have a fake ID,” she said, “but it sucks. So every time I go to the liquor store, I try to buy ten bottles of this, and some vodka for the Colonel. And so when it finally works, I’m covered for a semester. And then I give the Colonel his vodka, and he puts it wherever he puts it, and I take mine and bury it.”
“Because you’re a pirate,” I said.
“Aye, matey. Precisely. Although wine consumption has risen a bit this semester, so we’ll need to take a trip tomorrow. This is the last bottle.” She unscrewed the cap—no corks here—sipped, and handed it to me. “Don’t worry about the Eagle tonight,” she said. “He’s just happy most everyone’s gone. He’s probably masturbating for the first time in a month.”
I worried about it for a moment as I held the bottle by the neck, but I wanted to trust her, and so I did. I took a minor sip, and as soon as I swallowed, I felt my body rejecting the stinging syrup of it. It washed back up my esophagus, but I swallowed hard, and there, yes, I did it. I was drinking on campus.
So we lay in the tall grass between the soccer field and the woods, passing the bottle back and forth and tilting our heads up to sip the wince-inducing wine. As promised in the list, she brought a Kurt Vonnegut book, Cat’s Cradle, and she read aloud to me, her soft voice mingling with the the frogs’ croaking and the grasshoppers landing softly around us. I did not hear her words so much as the cadence of her voice. She’d obviously read the book many times before, and so she read flawlessly and confidently, and I could hear her smile in the reading of it, and the sound of that smile made me think that maybe I would like novels better if Alaska Young read them to me. After a while, she put down the book, and I felt warm but not drunk with the bottle resting between us—my chest touching the bottle and her chest touching the bottle but us not touching each other, and then she placed her hand on my leg.
Her hand just above my knee, the palm flat and soft against my jeans and her index finger making slow, lazy circles that crept toward the inside of my thigh, and with one layer between us, God I wanted her. And lying there, amid the tall, still grass and beneath the star-drunk sky, listening to the just-this-side-of-inaudible sound of her rhythmic breathing and the noisy silence of the bullfrogs, the grasshoppers, the distant cars rushing endlessly on I-65, I thought it might be a fine time to say the Three Little Words. And I steeled myself to say them as I stared up at that starriest night, convinced myself that she felt it, too, that her hand so alive and vivid against my leg was more than playful, and fuck Lara and fuck Jake because I do, Alaska Young, I do love you and what else matters but that and my lips parted to speak and before I could even begin to breathe out the words, she said, “It’s not life or death, the labyrinth.”
“Um, okay. So what is it?”
“Suffering,” she said. “Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. BolIvar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. And I felt the absence of her hand on me.
“Nothing’s wrong. But there’s always suffering, Pudge. Homework or malaria or having a boyfriend who lives far away when there’s a good-looking boy lying next to you. Suffering is universal. It’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about.”
I turned to her. “Oh, so maybe Dr. Hyde’s class isn’t total bullshit.” And both of us lying on our sides, she smiled, our noses almost touching, my unblinking eyes on hers, her face blushing from the wine, and I opened my mouth again but this time not to speak, and she reached up and put a finger to my lips and said, “Shh. Shh. Don’t ruin it.”
fifty-one days before
THE NEXT MORNING, I didn’t hear the knocking, if there was any.
I just heard, “UP! Do you know what time it is?!”
I looked at the clock and groggily muttered, “It’s seven thirty-six.”
“No, Pudge. It’s party time! We’ve only got seven days left before everyone comes back. Oh God, I can’t even tell you how nice it is to have you here. Last Thanksgiving, I spent the whole time constructing one massive candle using the wax from all my little candles. God, it was boring. I counted the ceiling tiles. Sixty-seven down, eighty-four across. Talk about suffering! Absolute torture.”
“I’m really tired. I—” I said, and then she cut me off.
“Poor Pudge. Oh, poor poor Pudge. Do you want me to climb into bed with you and cuddle?”
“Well, if you’re offering—”
“NO! UP! NOW!”
She took me behind a wing of Weekday Warrior rooms—50 to 59—and stopped in front of a window, placed her palms flat against it, and pushed up until the window was half open, then crawled inside. I followed.
“What do you see, Pudge?”
I saw a dorm room—the same cinder-block walls, the same dimensions, even the same layout as my own. Their couch was nicer, and they had an actual coffee table instead of COFFEE TABLE. They had two posters on the wall. One featured a huge stack of hundred-dollar bills with the caption THE FIRST MILLION IS THE HARDEST. On the opposite wall, a poster of a red Ferrari. “Uh, I see a dorm room.”
“You’re not looking, Pudge. When I go into your room, I see a couple of guys who love video games. When I look at my room, I see a girl who loves books.” She walked over to the couch and picked up a plastic soda bottle. “Look at this,” she said, and I saw that it was half filled with a brackish, brown liquid. Dip spit. “So they dip. And they obviously aren’t hygienic about it. So are they going to care if we pee on their toothbrushes? They won’t care enough, that’s for sure. Look. Tell me what these guys love.”
“They love money,” I said, pointing to the poster. She threw up her hands, exasperated.
“They all love money, Pudge. Okay, go into the bathroom. Tell me what you see there.”
The game was annoying me a little, but I went into the bathroom as she sat down on that inviting couch. Inside the shower, I found a dozen bottles of shampoo and conditioner. In the medicine cabinet, I found a cylindrical bottle of something called Rewind. I opened it—the bluish gel smelled like flowers and rubbing alcohol, like a fancy hair salon. (Under the sink, I also found a tub of Vaseline so big that it could have only had one possible use, which I didn’t care to dwell on.) I came back into the room and excitedly said, “They love their hair.”
“Precisely!” she shouted. “Look on the top bunk.” Perilously positioned on the thin wooden headboard of the bed, a bottle of STA-WET gel. “Kevin doesn’t just wake up with that spiky bedhead look, Pudge. He works for it. He loves that hair. They leave their hair products here, Pudge, because they have duplicates at home. All those boys do. And you know why?”
“Because they’re compensating for their tiny little penises?” I asked.
“Ha ha. No. That’s why they’re macho assholes. They love their hair because they aren’t smart enough to love something more interesting. So we hit them where it hurts: the scalp.”
“Ohh-kaay,” I said, unsure of how, exactly, to prank someone’s scalp.
She stood up and walked to the window and bent over to shimmy out. “Don’t look at my ass,” she said, and so I looked at her ass, spreading out wide from her thin waist. She effortlessly somersaulted out the half-opened window. I took the feetfirst approach, and once I got my feet on the ground, I limboed my upper body out the window.
“Well,” she said. “That looked awkward. Let’s go to the Smoking Hole.”
She shuffled her feet to kick up dry orange dirt on the road to the bridge, seeming not to walk so much as cross-country ski. As we followed the almost-trail down from the bridge to the Hole, she turned around and looked back at me, stopping. “I wonder how one would go about acquiring industrial-strength blue dye,” she said, and then held a tree branch back for me.
forty-nine days before
TWO DAYS LATER—Monday, the first real day of vacation—I spent the morning working on my religion final and went to Alaska’s room in the afternoon. She was reading in bed.
“Auden,” she announced. “What were his last words?”
“Don’t know. Never heard of him.”
“Never heard of him? You poor, illiterate boy. Here, read this line.” I walked over and looked down at her index finger. “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart,” I read aloud. “Yeah. That’s pretty good,” I said.
“Pretty good? Sure, and bufriedos are pretty good. Sex is pretty fun. The sun is pretty hot. Jesus, it says so much about love and brokenness—it’s perfect.”
“Mm-hmm.” I nodded unenthusiastically.
“You’re hopeless. Wanna go porn hunting?”
“We can’t love our neighbors till we know how crooked their hearts are. Don’t you like porn?” she asked, smiling.
“Um,” I answered. The truth was that I hadn’t seen much porn, but the idea of looking at porn with Alaska had a certain appeal.
We started with the 50s wing of dorms and made our way backward around the hexagon—she pushed open the back windows while I looked out and made sure no one was walking by.
I’d never been in most people’s rooms. After three months, I knew most people, but I regularly talked to very few—just the Colonel and Alaska and Takumi, really. But in a few hours, I got to know my classmates quite well.
Wilson Carbod, the center for the Culver Creek Nothings, had hemorrhoids, or at least he kept hemorrhoidal cream secreted away in the bottom drawer of his desk. Chandra Kilers, a cute girl who loved math a little too much, and who Alaska believed was the Colonel’s future girlfriend, collected Cabbage Patch Kids. I don’t mean that she collected Cabbage Patch Kids when she was, like, five. She collected them now—dozens of them—black, white, Latino, and Asian, boys and girls, babies dressed like farmhands and budding businessmen. A senior Weekday Warrior named Holly Moser sketched nude self-portraits in charcoal pencil, portraying her rotund form in all its girth.
I was stunned by how many people had booze. Even the Weekday Warriors, who got to go home every weekend, had beer and liquor stashed everywhere from toilet tanks to the bottoms of dirty-clothes hampers.
“God, I could have ratted out anyone,” Alaska said softly as she unearthed a forty-ounce bottle of Magnum malt liquor from Longwell Chase’s closet. I wondered, then, why she had chosen Paul and Marya.
Alaska found everyone’s secrets so fast that I suspected she’d done this before, but she couldn’t possibly have had advance knowledge of the secrets of Ruth and Margot Blowker, ninth-grade twin sisters who were new and seemed to socialize even less than I did. After crawling into their room, Alaska looked around for a moment, then walked to the bookshelf. She stared at it, then pulled out the King James Bible, and there—a purple bottle of Maui Wowie wine cooler.
“How clever,” she said as she twisted off the cap. She drank it down in two long sips, and then proclaimed, “Maui WOWIE!”
“They’ll know you were here!” I shouted.
Her eyes widened. “Oh no, you’re right, Pudge!” she said. “Maybe they’ll go to the Eagle and tell him that someone stole their wine cooler!” She laughed and leaned out the window, throwing the empty bottle into the grass.
And we found plenty of porn magazines haphazardly stuffed in between mattresses and box springs. It turns out that Hank Walsten did like something other than basketball and pot: he liked Juggs. But we didn’t find a movie until Room 32, occupied by a couple of guys from Mississippi named Joe and Marcus. They were in our religion class and sometimes sat with the Colonel and me at lunch, but I didn’t know them well.
Alaska read the sticker on the top of the video. “The Bitches of Madison County. Well. Ain’t that just delightful.”
We ran with it to the TV room, closed the blinds, locked the door, and watched the movie. It opened with a woman standing on a bridge with her legs spread while a guy knelt in front of her, giving her oral sex. No time for dialogue, I suppose. By the time they started doing it, Alaska commenced with her righteous indignation. “They just don’t make sex look fun for women. The girl is just an object. Look! Look at that!”