So I spent my date at the hospital with Lara and Takumi. The doctor told me to go home and sleep a lot, but to make sure and have someone wake me up every four hours or so.
I vaguely remember Lara standing in the doorway, the room dark and the outside dark and everything mild and comfortable but sort of spinny, the world pulsing as if from a heavy bass beat. And I vaguely remember Lara smiling at me from the doorway, the glittering ambiguity of a girl’s smile, which seems to promise an answer to the question but never gives it. The question, the one we’ve all been asking since girls stopped being gross, the question that is too simple to be uncomplicated: Does she like me or like me? And then I fell deeply, endlessly asleep and slept until three in the morning, when the Colonel woke me up.
“She dumped me,” he said.
“I am concussed,” I responded.
“So I heard. Hence my waking you up. Video game?”
“Okay. But keep it on mute. My head hurts.”
“Yeah. Heard you puked on Lara. Very suave.”
“Dumped?” I asked, getting up.
“Yeah. Sara told Jake that I had a hard-on for Alaska. Those words. In that order. And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have a hard-on for anything at this moment. You can check if you’d like,’ and Sara thought I was being too glib, I suppose, because then she said she knew for a fact I’d hooked up with Alaska. Which, incidentally, is ridiculous. I. Don’t. Cheat,” he said, and finally the game finished loading and I half listened as I drove a stock car in circles around a silent track in Talladega. The circles nauseated me, but I kept at it.
“So Alaska went ballistic, basically.” He affected Alaska’s voice then, making it more shrill and headache-inducing than it actually was. “ ‘No woman should ever lie about another woman! You’ve violated the sacred covenant between women! How will stabbing one another in the back help women to rise above patriarchal oppression?! ’ And so on. And then Jake came to Alaska’s defense, saying that she would never cheat because she loved him, and then I was like, ‘Don’t worry about Sara. She just likes bullying people.’ And then Sara asked me why I never stood up for her, and somewhere in there I called her a crazy bitch, which didn’t go over particularly well. And then the waitress asked us to leave, and so we were standing in the parking lot and she said, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and I just stared at her and she said, ‘Our relationship is over.’ ”
He stopped talking then. “ ‘Our relationship is over?’ ” I repeated. I felt very spacey and thought it was just best to repeat the last phrase of whatever the Colonel said so he could keep talking.
“Yeah. So that’s it. You know what’s lame, Pudge? I really care about her. I mean, we were hopeless. Badly matched. But still. I mean, I said I loved her. I lost my virginity to her.”
“You lost your virginity to her?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I never told you that? She’s the only girl I’ve slept with. I don’t know. Even though we fought, like, ninety-four percent of the time, I’m really sad.”
“You’re really sad?”
“Sadder than I thought I’d be, anyway. I mean, I knew it was inevitable. We haven’t had a pleasant moment this whole year. Ever since I got here, I mean, we were just on each other relentlessly. I should have been nicer to her. I don’t know. It’s sad.”
“It is sad,” I repeated.
“I mean, it’s stupid to miss someone you didn’t even get along with. But, I don’t know, it was nice, you know, having someone you could always fight with.”
“Fighting,” I said, and then, confused, barely able to drive, I added, “is nice.”
“Right. I don’t know what I’ll do now. I mean, it was nice to have her. I’m a mad guy, Pudge. What do I do with that?”
“You can fight with me,” I said. I put my controller down and leaned back on our foam couch and was asleep. As I drifted off, I heard the Colonel say, “I can’t be mad at you, you harmless skinny bastard.”
eighty-four days before
THREE DAYS LATER, the rain began. My head still hurt, and the sizable knot above my left temple looked, the Colonel thought, like a miniaturized topographical map of Macedonia, which I had not previously known was a place, let alone a country. And as the Colonel and I walked over the parched, half-dead grass that Monday, I said, “I suppose we could use some rain,” and the Colonel looked up at the low clouds coming in fast and threatening, and then he said, “Well, use it or not, we’re sure as shit going to get some.”
And we sure as shit did. Twenty minutes into French class, Madame O’Malley was conjugating the verb to believe in the subjunctive. Que je croie. Que tu croies. Qu’il ou qu’elle croie. She said it over and over, like it wasn’t a verb so much as a Buddhist mantra. Que je croie; que tu croies; qu’il ou qu’elle croie. What a funny thing to say over and over again: I would believe; you would believe; he or she would believe. Believe what? I thought, and right then, the rain came.
It came all at once and in a furious torrent, like God was mad and wanted to flood us out. Day after day, night after night, it rained. It rained so that I couldn’t see across the dorm circle, so that the lake swelled up and lapped against the Adirondack swing, swallowing half of the fake beach. By the third day, I abandoned my umbrella entirely and walked around in a perpetual state of wetness. Everything at the cafeteria tasted like the minor acid of rainwater and everything stank of mildew and showers became ludicrously inappropriate because the whole goddamned world had better water pressure than the showers.
And the rain made hermits of us all. The Colonel spent every not-in-class moment sitting on the couch, reading the almanac and playing video games, and I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to talk or whether he just wanted to sit on the white foam and drink his ambrosia in peace.
After the disaster that was our “date,” I felt it best not to speak to Lara under any circumstances, lest I suffer a concussion and/or an attack of puking, even though she’d told me in precalc the next day that it was “no beeg deal.”
And I saw Alaska only in class and could never talk to her, because she came to every class late and left the moment the bell rang, before I could even cap my pen and close my notebook. On the fifth evening of the rain, I walked into the cafeteria fully prepared to go back to my room and eat a reheated bufriedo for dinner if Alaska and/or Takumi weren’t eating (I knew full well the Colonel was in Room 43, dining on milk ’n’ vodka). But I stayed, because I saw Alaska sitting alone, her back to a rain-streaked window. I grabbed a heaping plate of fried okra and sat down next to her.
“God, it’s like it’ll never end,” I said, referring to the rain.
“Indeed,” she said. Her wet hair hung from her head and mostly covered her face. I ate some. She ate some.
“How’ve you been?” I finally asked.
“I’m really not up for answering any questions that start with how, when, where, why, or what.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That’s a what. I’m not doing what’s right now. All right, I should go.” She pursed her lips and exhaled slowly, like the way the Colonel blew out smoke.
“What—” Then I stopped myself and reworded. “Did I do something?” I asked.
She gathered her tray and stood up before answering. “Of course not, sweetie.”
Her “sweetie” felt condescending, not romantic, like a boy enduring his first biblical rainstorm couldn’t possibly understand her problems—whatever they were. It took a sincere effort not to roll my eyes at her, though she wouldn’t have even noticed as she walked out of the cafeteria with her hair dripping over her face.
seventy-six days before
“I FEEL BETTER,” the Colonel told me on the ninth day of the rainstorm as he sat down next to me in religion class. “I had an epiphany. Do you remember that night when she came to the room and was a complete and total bitch?”
“Yeah. The opera. The flamingo tie.”
“What about it?” I asked.
The Colonel pulled out a spiral notebook, the top half of which was soaking wet, and slowly pulled the pages apart until he found his place. “That was the epiphany. She’s a complete and total bitch.”
Hyde hobbled in, leaning heavily on a black cane. As he made his way toward his chair, he drily noted, “My trick knee is warning me that we might have some rain. So prepare yourselves.” He stood in front of his chair, leaned back cautiously, grabbed it with both hands, and collapsed into the chair with a series of quick, shallow breaths—like a woman in labor.
“Although it isn’t due for more than two months, you’ll be receiving your paper topic for this semester today. Now, I’m quite sure that you’ve all read the syllabus for this class with such frequency and seriousness that by now you’ve committed it to memory.” He smirked. “But a reminder: This paper is fifty percent of your grade. I encourage you to take it seriously. Now, about this Jesus fellow.”
Hyde talked about the Gospel of Mark, which I hadn’t read until the day before, although I was a Christian. I guess. I’d been to church, uh, like four times. Which is more frequently than I’d been to a mosque or a synagogue.
He told us that in the first century, around the time of Jesus, some of the Roman coins had a picture of the Emperor Augustus on them, and that beneath his picture were inscribed the words Filius Dei. The Son of God.
“We are speaking,” he said, “of a time in which gods had sons. It was not so unusual to be a son of God. The miracle, at least in that time and in that place, was that Jesus—a peasant, a Jew, a nobody in an empire ruled exclusively by somebodies—was the son of that God, the all-powerful God of Abraham and Moses. That God’s son was not an emperor. Not even a trained rabbi. A peasant and a Jew. A nobody like you. While the Buddha was special because he abandoned his wealth and noble birth to seek enlightenment, Jesus was special because he lacked wealth and noble birth, but inherited the ultimate nobility: King of Kings. Class over. You can pick up a copy of your final exam on the way out. Stay dry.” It wasn’t until I stood up to leave that I noticed Alaska had skipped class—how could she skip the only class worth attending? I grabbed a copy of the final for her.
The final exam: What is the most important question human beings must answer? Choose your question wisely, and then examine how Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.
“I hope that poor bastard lives the rest of the school year,” the Colonel said as we jogged home through the rain, “because I’m sure starting to enjoy that class. What’s your most important question?”
After thirty seconds of running, I was already winded. “What happens . . . to us . . . when we die?”
“Christ, Pudge, if you don’t stop running, you’re going to find out.” He slowed to a walk. “My question is: Why do good people get rotten lots in life? Holy shit, is that Alaska?”
She was running at us at full speed, and she was screaming, but I couldn’t hear her over the pounding rain until she was so close to us that I could see her spit flying.
“The fuckers flooded my room. They ruined like a hundred of my books! Goddamned pissant Weekday Warrior shit. Colonel, they poked a hole in the gutter and connected a plastic tube from the gutter down through my back window into my room! The whole place is soaking wet. My copy of The General in His Labyrinth is absolutely ruined.”
“That’s pretty good,” the Colonel said, like an artist admiring another’s work.
“Hey!” she shouted.
“Sorry. Don’t worry, dude,” he said. “God will punish the wicked. And before He does, we will.”
sixty-seven days before
SO THIS IS HOW NOAH FELT. You wake up one morning and God has forgiven you and you walk around squinting all day because you’ve forgotten how sunlight feels warm and rough against your skin like a kiss on the cheek from your dad, and the whole world is brighter and cleaner than ever before, like central Alabama has been put in the washing machine for two weeks and cleaned with extra-superstrength detergent with color brightener, and now the grass is greener and the bufriedos are crunchier.
I stayed by the classrooms that afternoon, lying on my stomach in the newly dry grass and reading for American history—the Civil War, or as it was known around these parts, the War Between the States. To me, it was the war that spawned a thousand good last words. Like General Albert Sidney Johnston, who, when asked if he was injured, answered, “Yes, and I fear seriously.” Or Robert E. Lee, who, many years after the war, in a dying delirium, announced, “Strike the tent!”
I was mulling over why the Confederate generals had better last words than the Union ones (Ulysses S. Grant’s last word, “Water,” was pretty lame) when I noticed a shadow blocking me from the sun. It had been some time since I’d seen a shadow, and it startled me a bit. I looked up.
“I brought you a snack,” Takumi said, dropping an oatmeal cream pie onto my book.
“Very nutritious.” I smiled.
“You’ve got your oats. You’ve got your meal. You’ve got your cream. It’s a fuckin’ food pyramid.”
“Hell yeah it is.”
And then I didn’t know what to say. Takumi knew a lot about hip-hop; I knew a lot about last words and video games. Finally, I said, “I can’t believe those guys flooded Alaska’s room.”
“Yeah,” Takumi said, not looking at me. “Well, they had their reasons. You have to understand that with like everybody, even the Weekday Warriors, Alaska is famous for pranking. I mean, last year, we put a Volkswagen Beetle in the library. So if they have a reason to try and one-up her, they’ll try. And that’s pretty ingenious, to divert water from the gutter to her room. I mean, I don’t want to admire it . . .”