Frankie's face is pale and he's hardly breathing. Nothing has scared me this much since I was a boy and my father spilled his tractor over the creek ravine. And it's the same kind of fear—you sit and wait for the experts to decide it’s this or that or something else, and there's not a damn thing you or anyone else can do. You wait. You pray off and on, even if you don't believe in such things. And you remember. Frankie once said that he wrote stories to chase off “lurkers,” the fears and memories that haunted him every day. Way back then, I thought science was the better answer, that the logical progression through facts chased away lurkers. But science, here in the hospital with its tubes and blipping machines, gives no solace: I get that now. I get why Frankie always looked at me with his eyebrows high on his head when I’d say such things. We were kids, right, and we thought we knew it all. Now, there’s a bandage across his forehead and a spot of blood has seeped through, bright, redder than you’d think, somehow.
So I'm sitting here, hoping he'll wake up and say, “Sport, damn it, my head feels worse than those mornings-after we'd mix vodka and grapefruit juice, gallon for gallon. You remember?” I remember. I might remind him it was worse when we used Hawaiian Punch. And then the time when midterms were the next day and Frankie wrote that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was “a scientific idea suggesting that everything in the universe is related, generally.” Man, how we laughed when you told us that day—God, more than twenty years ago, now—and then asked who’d brought the Hawaiian Punch. How could it be twenty years? It’s like somebody’s sick idea of a joke.
The hospital smells of ammonia and alcohol, but something more as well. I’m used to a science lab, but here there’s this other odor, like you can actually smell the illnesses and the stress here. When I got here, they asked me if I'm family. “Brothers,” I said. I don’t try to reason with institutions about their arbitrary distinctions. I came in, and his eyes were glossy from pain-killers and he said, “To hell with this, Dave,” and then, “Get outta here, man.” He repeated it as he faded in and out, “To hell with this,” and “Go on, get out.” I sat with my hands on my knees and talked. I said anything. I don’t even remember what I said, but I don't think he heard me, anyway.
He wrecked his Coke-can red 1967 Mustang just after noon. I'd been in town about twenty minutes, long enough to cruise past the alma mater and land myself at Sharon's Diner, where I heard it over the scanner: pedestrian/vehicle collision at the college. When they described the car, I knew it was Frankie’s, though he'd told me he wasn't coming to this twentieth reunion. “The Big Two-Oh,” he laughed over the phone, “No Way, Sport. Show up and give Liz a big wet one for me, right on the lips, even if she’s brought her idiot husband.”
The girl he hit is down the hall. When I got here, various college types paced the corridor. One of them glared at me, no doubt thinking it was Frankie's fault, which is natural, I guess. We'd have been the same way, right? For the college kids, it’s still ‘them against the world,’ and they don’t realize that tomorrow, the seniors at least will suddenly be part of the opposition, will have to figure out how to swim in that big pond. I know that sounds all Hallmark card and maybe Robert Frost (Frankie always told me I misunderstood Frost, that he was a tough old bird, that he was real), and I don’t mean it as trite: I mean those kids don’t know they’re going to have to compromise their souls in some ways, that people are going to betray them, that it’s going to hurt like hell and no amount of grand illusions is going to fix it. But that’s them, right now, and this is us, right now, “ancient” to them, part of the world’s awfulness they’ve been immune to.
Us and them, the individuals change, but the parameters don’t: you find yourself stepping over the line or you look up one day and you’re on the other side. But as for the sides? No. They don’t change. It's a prism and when you hold it to the light you see the progression of colors. That doesn't mean anything changes except the angles, the perspective. Those kids in the hall don't realize we slept in the same dorms, bought our vodka at the same liquor store. It was called Jim’s Liquors then, not Chestertown Liquors, and not what it’ll be called twenty years from now, but the sign’s the only thing that changed. The vodka is on the same damn shelf, even. Same with the kids—they look a little different with their crew cuts and their pierced eyebrows; in 2033 at their Big Two-Oh, they’ll be the old timers. Hell, and we’ll be primeval by then.
I left word at the diner and the alumni house about the accident, and anytime now I expect Rudy and Liz and the rest to come in. So I’ll sit with this notepad I bought at the gift shop and wait, and chase away lurkers. Frankie’d call it “ironic” that I’ve turned in my formulas for words this time. Late at night when he’d be working on a story, I’d tell him all art is narcissism, with writers being the worst of the lot: oh, fill me with your words, great poets. He’d grin and say, “Go try and save the world with your science, Sport. We’ll see.” And I want to say back to him, the pretend him in my mind, “Yeah? Go save the world with your Robert Frost.” Not fair, I know, but I don’t feel like being fair just now.
When we were in college we wanted to save the world, all of us, but the world—which doesn’t want saving at all—has come down hard.
Frankie wore his red hair long then, and a large, tattered cowboy hat with three feathers in it, a contrast to the nineties' yuppie-lawyer look of a small East Coast college. Frankie was grunge before grunge was cool. When he walked into the dorm room that first day, with the hair and the hat and a duffle bag over one shoulder, my mother was captivated. Her eyebrows twitched and she said, “We're Dave's parents, you must be Franklin—my, what gorgeous hair!” Well, my folks are from the Woodstock era, right, so to them he must’ve look like some red-haired Jim Morrison.
“Thanks,” he grinned. His gaze swept the room, categorized me, my parents, the boxes. He leaned against the desk I'd claimed with Bonnie’s picture, cocked his head as my mother went on about how she'd always wanted red-haired, freckle-cheeked children, how my sister and I had sorely disappointed her by turning out blonde. He smiled as if he found her charming—my mother, for God's sake—and said, “At least he's a sharp dresser.” I'd done the one-color thing: shirt, vest, and tie of exactly the same maroon. On the way here, my father had muttered that I looked like a pizza parlor waiter. He now laughed vigorously. And I hated Frankie.
At last my parents left. Frankie leaned across the desk, staring at the picture.
“That's Bonnie,” I said, “My steady. If you wanted that desk --”
“She's cute,” he said, and tilted the picture to its original position. “You engaged or what?”
I laughed. “No.”
“Then why the picture?” His arched brows disappeared under the hat.
“Well, she's... I...”
“Look, Sport, you don't want girls seeing an eight-by-ten of the girl back home, right? You'll never get laid that way.”
“Here,” he opened the bottom desk drawer and deposited the picture. “Take it out when Bonnie visits. Want a beer? I passed three bars on my way into town.” He flipped a penny in the air and for an instant the copper gleamed red in the dim light, and then disappeared in his palm. “Let's go.”
~ ~ ~
Now it’s nearly two in the afternoon and I can see from the window the big barbecue gathering on the college lawn. The doctors made me leave, examined him, then called me back in to say it’s three broken ribs and a cut on the forehead, now with twenty-two stitches in it. They set the ribs, gave him pain killers and want to hold him twenty-four hours, but they’re expecting him to be fine. They said the girl down the hall has a broken leg and will have a serious hangover, in their own way hinting that it’s likely no charges should be filed. Fine, then, part of me wants to sling him over my shoulder and carry him across the lawn to the barbecue.
In the old days, we’d have done it. Rudy would’ve helped me carry him. To hell with their precautions, we’d say. “Never trust anyone over thirty” was our motto. And the thing is—and I know this even as I’m sitting here—the doctors and nurses would prefer it that way, prefer just to have one more empty bed. I also know that I won’t do it, now that I’m a decade over thirty.
Still… I keep waiting for the gang to show up. It's a dreamy notion, but maybe when Liz arrives, Frankie’ll come around. Even if she brings Brent, Frankie will ignore him, just as it never bothered him she was Brent’s steady. “Keeps me from having to make any kind of foolish promises,” he'd say. None of us thought less of Liz because she was officially Brent’s girl but also Frankie’s lover; it all seemed to make sense, somehow. It was a weird time, I guess.
Outside it's brightly May, the sun glowing on the white dome of Bill Smith Hall, symbol of our alma mater. Within the hives of dorms, the members of the Class of 2013 hold their breath in anticipation of their graduation day tomorrow. They have no idea that twenty years can suddenly evaporate.
Frankie and I stayed roommates through college. He never seemed to lose—not with women, not with professors, not even on the basketball court though he was only 5'10”. We were a tight group, but all types gravitated to Frankie and there was always someone new dropping by the room. He'd introduce me as “Dave, the Physics major,” as if that described my inner soul.
Physics was his only downfall. Senior year they told him he needed three science credits to graduate, and Physics 101 was the only open course. We tried to cheer him up but he shrugged us off, went out and bought six bottles of peach schnapps, invited over a bunch of his literary buddies. That night, they organized a satirical magazine. “This'll get ‘em,” he told me at three that morning. Outside, the Phi-Sigma-Deltas had built a bonfire and the reflections of flames played orange tag against Frankie's cowboy hat on its nail and my Blind Melon poster.
I said to him, “You can’t hate physics. It’s the way the world moves, the physical laws that run the universe. There's something mystical about that.”
“Mystical, hell,” he said.
I told him I'd help him through the course, just as he'd helped me through “An In-Depth Critical Study of Medieval Literature,” a course that was supposed to be "in English," but as far as I could tell it wasn’t. The professor told me just to keep reading it, and to read it out loud, and nothing worked. Frankie tried to explain it, then showed me where to find the Canterbury Tales translation.
~ ~ ~
Now it’s nearly four p.m. The nurse comes in, a cute girl, and assures me that my brother will be fine. But the weird part is, she brings in this pot of daffodils with a card that says, “WE LOVE YA, FRANK. GET WELL! --Sanchez, Rudy & Anne, Tommy, Liz & Brent.” So they’ve heard about the accident—which means they’re in town—and they sent flowers? I mean, we’re so close I could throw the pot of flowers out the window and probably hit the damned alumni house.
Could be I'm paranoid, that everybody's just getting into town. Liz would know that daffodils are Frankie's favorite. I have this memory of watching him go up the fire escape to her room, Romeo-like, a bunch of daffodils and a bottle of white wine sticking out of the top of his backpack. They're probably planning to come up after dinner, and maybe everyone will come in one big group.
I can never think of the dorms in past tense when I drive by. I expect to see Rudy and Tommy playing frisbee on the roof, or Sanchez leaning against the yellowing columns, waiting for winter so we can get out our skates and sneak down to the pond at midnight. Beyond the dorms, on the lacrosse field, Brent's scoring a zillion goals while Frankie and I are clapping and shouting like everyone else, but also rolling our eyes at each other.
Everything happened quickly after we graduated. It was ‘92 and there weren’t any real jobs, so we all scrambled to pay the monthly student loan bills and find a way to live. Things I’d assumed would happen got all screwed up, like that Liz and Frankie would get married. It hadn't mattered their relationship was “secret,” with Liz moving in with Brent and Frankie getting a big MFA fellowship to the U of Michigan. Things would work out, we thought. I did, at least. Fate would work it that Frankie got the girl and all would be well. When he called me a year after graduation to say he was getting married, I asked if they planned to use the college lounge like Jill and Don.
“Who?” he asked. “What college?”
“'What college?' Isn't it--? Oh,” I said.
She was someone he'd met in a graduate class, “a real babe.” He asked me to be Best Man, so I did. Frankie stood at the altar, slick as ever, with this Janice beside him. She was pretty, and when I talked to her afterwards she seemed nice, but something was wrong. “Tell me how you first met Frankie,” I said, “He makes one helluva first impression, huh?” I poured her champagne.
“Oh? We met in class, I suppose. After class. We had lunch and he seemed very sweet.”
I overfilled her glass and champagne foamed on the floor, a pale yellow splash against linoleum. She'd just married our Frankie. Sweet?
I saw him the next summer, in Chicago. I had business there for the lab, and he was teaching at a writing seminar. We met at a bar. Sanchez had said she'd seen some of his Facebook posts and he seemed down. She said she messaged him, not a personal conversation, just 'are-you-doing-okay-what’s-up' sort of thing, and he said he was okay. But Sanchez was always good at sensing if something was going on. So I asked him that day, “How's Janice?” I asked him.
“Great.” The beers arrived. He slipped his fingers through the handle and hoisted the mug.
I said, “Make the toast. You're the writer.”
He snorted. “You make the toast.”
“To old times?” I lifted my mug.
He cocked his head, looked at me like he didn't recognize me. With that look still in his eyes, he smiled. “Why not,” he said, and the mugs clinked together. Foam dripped down the sides.
~ ~ ~
It’s after six p.m. now. Frankie woke up a little while ago, and we talked. Maybe I don’t understand him at all. Maybe I never did. I know I'm not being objective; the scientific coolness I have at work has evaporated. I don't know if anything I remember is true. Christ, I wish they'd show up. What I'd give to see Sanchez right about now. I'd almost settle for Brent.
I looked up from this and he was staring at me. “Now I'm worried,” he said, his voice strained. “I wake up in a hospital to find a scientist beside my bed taking notes. What, have they listed my organs on eBay?” He didn't smile, but he looked sort of impish. “What are you writing?”
“Nothing. Doodling,” I said.
The slim circle of green around his pupils looked washed-out. I remembered his eyes as clover-coloredbut now it was like the clover had burned dry under a hot sun. “How's the girl?” he asked, “The one I hit.”
“Broken leg,” I said, “No big deal… you were both lucky.”
“Lucky, you call it.”
“Hey,” I said, “Look who sent you flowers.”
He glanced at them. “Was it Aussie? Is she here?”
Aussie is his latest girl, someone he met in Chicago—a “performance artist,” young, maybe twenty-two. “No, they're from the gang”
“The gang.” He pursed his lips.
“Everyone's coming by in a bit. Liz and everybody. You've got to get fired up, be ol' knock-‘em-dead Frankie.” He didn’t answer. “Come on. What’s the Big Two-Oh without Frankie boy?” He grunted, said nothing. “So why'd you come, if you’re going to be a jerk about it?”
“No idea. But it sure looks like a bad decision.”
“I got it. Fate had you wreck the car. It all means you should’ve stayed in Chicago. And no one cares if they see you anyway. I guess that makes me the jerk.”
Then he got a funny look and I thought I’d gotten through to him, like I’d made some big impression, hit some stroke of wisdom. “I’m sick,” he said, “Bet they gave me codeine.” He touched the bandage on his forehead with two fingers, spoke slowly, “Sorry if I’m bringing you down, but I don’t see it like you do. The college wants our money, as usual. And Alums show up to compare notes, like checking the papers after a horse race.”
“How can you say that about Rudy and Sanchez? Or about me?”
“Not you,” he said.
“The others, then. They sent you these nice flowers. They’ll be here any minute.”
“When their Aunt Martha in Tampa dies they send flowers then, too.”
“Stop it,” I said.
“Okay...” he said. “Have things your way,” he spoke slower and slower. “You always were a kind of conscience for everyone.” He closed his eyes, and his breathing deepened.
I've been watching him sleep since then. He hasn’t moved. Frankie, we were eighteen when we met and now we're looking at forty, and somehow you never seemed as young as you do here. Even when you slept you were invulnerable, smirking, having your own dreams in your own head and damn it nobody better wake you up. Then you'd get up and saunter off to the shower, and, still smirking, go off to class. Solid. Compact, like the pit bulldog you now own.
Now you say it’s like checking the papers after a horse race. Frankie, wake up, damn you. Wake up and listen to me.
It’s nearly seven now, dusk. I went to the snack machine and got pretzels. The college kids are gone, the nurses nearly comatose at their station. No sign of the crew. I've been thinking about what he said about me as the “conscience” for everybody. I keep thinking about the last time I saw Sanchez, a few years ago, Christmas. She called me at work, asked if we could meet on South Street. She spoke softly and in measured syllables, so I knew she was in some kind of trouble.
I was waiting on the corner when she got out of the cab, and for a moment she didn't see me. She looked like a runaway, standing there in a khaki coat with mascara running down her cheeks. After we hugged I put my arm around her and led her to Andre's, steered her to a corner booth. She took out a cigarette case and offered me one. I stared; the only fight we'd ever had was once when she threw out my cigarettes because she didn't want me to “ruin my lungs and et-cetera.” I'd quit several years later, when I got married, because Bonnie didn't like the smell. I took the cigarette, when she offered, and inhaled deeply as she lit it. “So,” I said, “You okay?”
“Frankie's at my apartment,” she said, each syllable distinct.
She put her hand on the side of her face. The line of mascara smeared, the green eye shadow distinct. “Davie, I don't know what to do.”
I reached across to touch her hand. “What happened?”
“He just showed up last night. There was a knock. I opened the door. He hugged me. And ... so… He stayed.”
“I don't know what to do. I never know what to do. It's always the wrong thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“He… I guess he just needed someone to talk to and et-cetera.”
“Then things got—he's separated from Janice, did you know?” She sniffled and began rooting through her purse for a tissue.
“Well, you can surmise what happened between us and et-cetera.”
“Okay. Things happen.”
“No they don't.” Her eyes were fierce beneath the moth-like green. “They don't 'just happen' to me. Not with him, at any rate. Do you know how long I've been in love with him?”
I choked on the cigarette, couldn't stop coughing. My eyes watered. The waitress brought two glasses of water. Sanchez ordered coffees.
I recovered. “Sorry,” I said, “Haven't smoked in awhile.”
“You were saying I didn't know how long you've been in love with Frankie.”
“Always,” she said, “Since you introduced me. The bastard. He never looked twice at me, was always panting after some Barbie, but that didn't stop me from planning. Frankie and I were going to be the talk of the campus. I heard them like a movie in my head, 'campus stud goes steady with little Brazilian girl that no one else wants.'“
“That's ridiculous,” I said, “You had plenty of boyfriends.”
“The freaks, that's all. The ones who couldn't get anyone else to go out with them. I was prime game for the freak set.”
I looked at the sugar bowl because I didn’t want her to know what I was thinking. I’d been the first one to ask her out, the one who’d taken her to the Freshmen Ball. “So Frankie’s at your apartment. Isn’t that good?”
The waitress brought the coffees and Sanchez sipped hers. “It was a long time ago,” she said. “College was a long time ago. When he never bothered with me and just went his jolly way, I bounced back. Had to. I even started to like him a little, thinking he had plenty of chances to take advantage of my affections but didn’t because he was noble, or something. Then I started to wonder if maybe I wasn’t good enough, even for that, and et-cetera. Do you see?”
“Sure,” I said, though I didn’t. I doubted that Frankie had even considered sleeping with Sanchez then. She was like a kid sister to him. And that wasn’t because she was Brazilian.
“Now I don’t know what to think. He finally did come back to take advantage of me, always knew I was waiting around, just didn’t get desperate enough to follow it up until last night.”
“Take advantage of you? Come on, Sanchez, what happened to the new millennium all of a sudden?” The world, it seemed, had gotten darker.
She sniffled. “I know. You think I don’t know? I only came to tell you how I feel, not what I think—“
“Sorry,” I said, touching her hand again. “I’m a pretty piss-poor confidante, huh?”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m imposing. I know how close you and Frankie were. I don’t know what to do. He woke up this morning and asked me to make him breakfast. Can you imagine?”
“And did you?”
She blew her nose and nodded. “Yeah. I did.” Then she was crying, her chest moving in little spasms, tears making dark spots on the tablecloth. I reached across and hugged her, and we hugged for a long time. I didn’t know what to tell her. Frankie took what he wanted and expected that everyone else did the same, and I don’t think he ever considered the fact that someone might follow his lead out of loyalty or love or anything else.
~ ~ ~
I sound angry about that and I am, though I don’t mean to be. I’m jealous, probably. I had a terrible crush on her once. Anyway, I haven’t talked with her since then, though we comment on each other’s Facebook posts. I never mentioned it to Frankie, either.
I hope they decide to show. Not so much for Frankie, really; I need to know he’s wrong, that it isn’t a horse race, and that something survives. I’m staking a lot on this, damn right. And if they let me down I’ll never forgive them.
Now it’s eight p.m. and napkins like small white flags flutter in the dark of the campus lawn. Through the open windows, I hear shouts and laughter, the beeping of horns. This is their last night, their last hurrah.
Only the small fluorescent light over Frankie's bed is on. It casts a pale blue on the walls and sheets, like shadows across snow. The veins in his hands are darker blue. In here, the only sound is his breathing. Aussie has arrived. She said she recognized me from photos. She said the hospital called her, that her cell phone must still be listed as an emergency number in his wallet. The qualifier “still” stopped me, so other than that, we haven't spoken, are sitting vigilant watch on either side of his bed. It's funny-- I didn't realize how young she is. He called her his “babe.” Babe the Blue Ox comes to mind, for no good reason at all, because she’s perfectly beautiful.
She’s a perfectly beautiful young woman who could be my daughter, for God’s sake, or Frankie’s daughter or one of those Zeta Tau Alphas who will tomorrow hand out the Graduation programs. That shouldn’t matter. My college self would be appalled at me for thinking this way--just because people are different ages, that doesn’t mean… Yeah, you think that way when you’re twenty. By the time you’re forty, if you’ve lived life at all, you see all the things that the twenty-year-olds can’t see yet. Nothing against them: they just can’t see it yet. But Frankie mumbles in his sleep and I guess he doesn’t care what she sees yet or what she doesn’t see.
The last time I saw Frankie was a year ago, at his house in Connecticut, and he was living with Aussie at that point, but she was on tour. He wore a navy-colored work shirt and jeans, and it was a breezy October day. We sat on his back porch and sipped brandy. He told me about his teaching position, read me the reviews of his latest book of poetry, good ones and bad ones, and we laughed about both. I showed him wallet photos of Bonnie and the kids, and he told me about Aussie's latest show, something about Poseidon and our water-births, whatever that means. We laughed about it and it was all strangely middle-aged, like we were part of things but at the same time like we were just playing. I didn't really have two kids; he wasn't really living with a twenty-two-year-old performance artist. “This is not real,” I said.
He nodded. “Right. We're on the dorm roof, it’s May of ’92 with BOC blaring across the quad, and we’re drunk on vodka, predicting what life will be like when we’re middle aged. What do you think of our predictions?”
I looked around the porch. “I didn't really expect to end up with Bonnie. And I always thought you'd be with Liz.” From the objective viewpoint of my past, the present seemed very odd.
“Well,” he said, placing the glass ashtray on his knee and gazing down like it was a crystal ball. All I saw was a magnification of his jeans. “Sorry, friend, but that's what the Fates tell me. You'll marry your high school sweetheart and I, after a brief and painless marriage to someone named 'Janet'—no, wait a minute—'Janice,' end up with a real babe.” My cheeks were warm from the brandy, and a cool wind blew across the porch. He laughed, and slapped his hands on his knees, and refilled our glasses.
~ ~ ~
Right, and here we are in current reality, with Washington College across the street and me here looking out at it. You ever have one of those times when you’re looking at something and you’re in the past but you’re also in the present and somehow you don’t get them separated? Or, maybe when you do get them separated it gives you kind of a sick feeling? I’m not good at this kind of stuff. I like my job, I like chemical compounds—I like the way they’re predictable and that even when they aren’t, you can figure out why they aren’t and it makes sense.
There's been no word from the others. I should call the alumni house and see if they've checked in. But I can't do it. “I need some air,” she just said to me. “Me too,” I said, and we’re out of here.
Now it’s nearly ten and we’re back, nothing accomplished except now we know why we haven’t been speaking to each other; now it’s settled and there’s no need to try. Outside, walking across campus with her, the night was moist and warm, the smell of mown grass heavy, the rigid little silhouettes of the graduation chairs in their rows. We walked over to the statue of George Washington, beside a statue that I once covered with toilet paper, his shadowed features oddly indigo in this light.
“Aussie,” I asked her as we sat there, “What's happened to him?”
She nudged the acorns with her toe. “I'm not sure. His uncle died. He couldn't write. He wouldn't talk to me. I tried to tell him how I felt, but he'd only walk away. I encouraged him to come to this reunion... to 'find his roots' or something. He refused. This Monday, I moved in with a friend for a while.”
The band over the hill, hired by the Class of ‘82 (here for, good God, their thirtieth reunion), started playing “Galileo.” On a hunch, I asked, “That friend—was it a man or a woman?”
She jumped a little. “What difference does that make?”
“It does,” I said, feeling old.
“Just leave me alone.”
So now we’re back in the hospital room. I'm tired and have no idea why I'm sitting here not talking to Frankie's former girlfriend, who has an earring in her tongue—in her tongue, for God’s sake. She’s a kid; she’s like the kids still going to school here, could jump up and run across the quad and fit right in. But she’s come to see Frankie who, like me, is now "old" or at least not young. Not young enough for earrings in our tongues and backward baseball caps—and I’m glad about that. I wish I'd tried harder to convince Bonnie and the kids to come, that we were like the rest of the old farts, on the lawn waiting for the Class of '62's fireworks. 1962. God.
I'm going to find the others. I'll stop by the liquor store on my way. The desire for a drink has stirred a thought that we didn't always get the vodka because we wanted to have a good time. Often life was crazy and frustrating and we were trying to get away from it, and tipping the bottle eased the lurkers into shadow. Like now.
~ ~ ~
I'm alone in Sanchez's hotel room. I can hear them yelling next door. The vodka churns, the room spins, dark drapes with ridiculous purple flowers jiggling on the periphery of my vision. Writing words keeps it steadier. Around my eye, the skin stings and throbs. I'll never be able to read this and I don't care.
The Alumni House told me they were here. We used to make jokes about this cheap hotel and its hourly rates.
Rudy got a perm, Sanchez lost weight and looks sleek, Brent's finally grown into his nose, Anne said they'd been waiting for me. Kids everywhere. And Liz looks the same, the same as she did twenty years ago.
Sanchez asked about my kids. Rudy told me about his new job at U.S.A. Today. They were drinking blackberry brandy. I was drunk when I got here and wanted to keep drinking and catch up on their news. But Frankie's in the hospital down the street, and they sent daffodils like they would if Aunt Matilda in Miami died. I whispered, “Where have you been?”
Only Liz heard me. Very softly, she asked, “How is he?”
Rudy was still talking about his job, Sanchez about the law firm, Anne about how Tommy couldn't make it, Brent about some trip to Bermuda... “Frankie,” I began sharply, “is down the road in the freaking hospital.”
Anne mentioned the flowers. Rudy said they'd expected me at the barbecue. Sanchez wanted to know if he'd been charged with reckless driving. “It's all right that you didn't think to come,” I said, “You can come now. We can all go now.” I leaned on Liz's shoulder and waited for them to go into action, for Sanchez to say, “Let's hit it,” for Rudy to ask what cars we'd take, for Anne to be ignored when she wondered if this would be allowed. I waited and cars rushed by the window, headlights flashing in the dark, then gone.
At last Rudy said, “When we called they said 'no visitors.'“
“So?” I said, “Who cares what they say?”
“I care,” said Brent.
“Who cares what you say?”
“Wait,” Liz said, “Stop it. Dave, Brent...”
Brent took a step closer. “We're supposed to be falling over ourselves to run see Frankie, huh? 'Cause, if it wasn't for Frankie the world would stop spinning!”
The vodka pulsed through me. I addressed the others, not Brent. “I come here and find you all having a party while Frankie's in the hospital saying that nothing matters.”
“Dear Jesus,” Brent laughed and put his hand over his heart, “Saying that nothing matters! This is sweet! I thought this reunion was going to be dull, but, dude--”
No one challenged this, not even Liz. Not even Sanchez. I lunged at him, swinging. I aimed and swung and missed entirely, dweeb that I am and have always been. Something like a rock slammed into the side of my face and I landed hard. Someone helped me up, and I thought, just point me in his direction and I’ll go at the bastard again, but I realized it was Sanchez and she was taking me away, into another room while the rest of them yelled at one another.
She brought me a towel with ice in it. I could smell her perfume, like violets. The ice stung. “Frankie says it’s all a horse race,” I said.
“Do you think it’s a horse race?”
“To some degree, it’s always been a horse race. That’s not news, and I’m sorry for Frankie if he’s just now figuring that out and et-cetera.” She folded her hands on her lap.
“What the hell does that mean? This is Frankie we're talking about. Remember?”
“I remember.” She placed her hand on mine and shifted the ice back over my eye.
“Come with me,” I said, “Now. To the hospital. Frankie would be there if it were you.”
“No he wouldn't,” she said, evenly. “He wouldn't.”
At graduation, we all said we wouldn't change. We'd keep our souls intact and conquer the world. Diplomas held like swords, we hugged and the sunshine gleamed purple on our robes. Nothing would change. I'm laughing as I write this. It's a sick laugh. The bruise around my eye is starting to color. Why did I believe it? Why didn't I see that something else would take over? The college, the liquor store, this hotel, have stayed behind, but they're no longer connected to me. I can't reach them even when I try. Someone else plays frisbee on the roof. Someone else stands in the check-out line with three cans of Hawaiian Punch. And they’re going to get old, too.
You were right, Frankie. As always.
~ ~ ~
I went back to Frankie's hospital room. On the way down the hall, I saw Aussie asleep in the lounge. I was still drunk and considered waking her, but I had no idea what I'd say. I kept going. The nurse's station was empty, and the clock said 4:30 a.m.
Frankie was sleeping. I pulled the chair up to the window and sat with my back to him. I waited for the sky to lighten, wondered if this was what all-nighters were like. I'd been one of those students who finished papers days early. Frankie'd laugh and say that it’s the moment before dawn when the genius pours out. I sat in his hospital room and waited for the genius to pour out. I was almost convinced, as I sat there rubbing my black eye, that a moment of inspiration would hit me, and everything would click into perspective. Nothing happened.
The sky turned grey, then violet, and still nothing happened. The silhouette of the college dome appeared as it did every morning whether I lived or died. I considered calling Bonnie, but didn't know what to say. She’d ask how the barbecue was, and I didn’t want to explain that Dave the dweeb sat in the hospital all night. Brief excursion to the hotel resulting in a black eye. Stupid.
When Frankie said, “You're still here,” I jumped, but didn't turn. “Been here all night?”
I tried to speak, but squeaked instead, so cleared my throat. “They aren’t coming,” I said. I thought about being more dramatic, like picking up the pot of daffodils and hurling it at him.
“Uh huh,” he said.
“Say you told me so. Go ahead.” I turned around. They’d removed the bandage, left a line of stitches.
“Holy God, where’d you get the shiner, Sport?” His eyebrows shot up and he was grinning.
I turned back to the window. “I was an asshole,” I said, “Like you used to be.”
He laughed. “Fun, huh?”
I didn’t answer. My eyes started to sting, and I thought—damn, I’m not going to cry, am I? Poor deluded, nostalgic Dave... poor Dave who liked the little Brazilian girl? Dave the man in the lab coat who comes home to his high school sweetheart and two kids? I bit my lip, and focused on the streak of white jet smoke inching across the lavender sky.
“Hey...?” he asked. “You hanging in there?”
“Sure,” I said, “Like you.” My throat squeezed against my windpipe and I had to breathe fast. “Look, the horse race is over. All of us lost. You want me to give you the run down on how everyone’s doing—Rudy, Liz and the rest, or do you want to wait and read it in the alumni rag?” Frankie asked, “You saw them, then? Lizzy and all of them?”
I nodded. “Rudy has a job with ‘U.S. News and World Report.’“
“So how do you know?”
“I keep up,” he said softly.
“Like horse races.”
“Because it’s interesting trivia. You can use us in your books.”
I shrugged. It was time to go. “Sorry about your car.” I started to tell him I’d have Bonnie send flowers when I got home, but I didn’t.
“Well... None of it matters, after all.”
“I know that.” Two girls were adding more graduation chairs to the campus lawn.
“Let me finish,” he said, “Maybe it’s you that’s changed. Did you think of that, Sport?”
“Everything changes, nothing changes. So what. Don’t call me ‘Sport,’“ I said. The girls were laughing in the sunshine.
“It was you who kept ‘the crew’ together. You were there at the heart of it, not me. It was always you.” I snorted and turned to face him so he’d see I wasn’t being taken in by his crap, and that pathetic ‘Sport’ no longer existed. He went on, “Wasn’t it you who first dated Sanchez when she was too shy to speak to anyone? You were my Best Man. You were Rudy and Anne’s Best Man.”
I held his gaze without blinking. “What happened with Sanchez?”
“After you slept with her. What happened?”
He cleared his throat. “I guess I put on my pants and went home. What would you have done, married her?”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Me? Not me. I’m just the freak who comes along to save the day.”
“You have more sense, more decency, than the rest of us. If that makes you a freak…”
“Yeah,” I said. “It does. It always did. I’m the only one who didn’t see myself that way.”
“Look, Spor—uh, Dave—I wouldn’t have graduated if hadn’t been for you. The others were nice, like daffodils are nice, but if you hadn’t convinced Grimes to let me re-take that exam, the fellowship to Michigan would’ve gone straight down the toilet. You held my hand for a week while I tried to learn that crap.” The line of stitches furrowed and straightened, and he seemed to be waiting for my permission to go on. I shrugged and he continued. “I never did get the bit about ‘ultraviolet light breaking down atomic bombs,’ or whatever it was.”
I smiled, despite myself. “’...breaking down molecular bonds.’“
“Right. And that stupid textbook, ‘The Good Earth as Man—‘“
“’The Natural World as Man Knows It.’ You kept calling it ‘The Natural Girl as Man Knows Her.’ Said you were going to title your first book after it.”
“Must’ve slipped my mind.”
None of this nostalgia changed anything. “Now we do sound like old college farts at the Big Two-Oh,” I said, “Hooray.”
“That’s pretty bad, you think?”
“It’s bad,” I said.
He cocked his head at me, rubbed his chin. “That ultraviolet light, what does it do again?”
I answered mechanically, “Breaks the molecular bonds between atoms, which allows them to combine in different ways, to become new things.”
“And this is good?”
“Of course. It’s the way the universe moves, and part of how it changes, and without ch—” I stopped. I stared hard at him.
He nodded, and looked down. “You know, I really could use a cup of coffee, Dave.”
“Okay,” I said. I needed one, too.
There was a knock at the door. Aussie peeked in. “I see the old bear’s awake. I’ve brought you a present, Franklin.”
“I’m in trouble,” he said to me, and winked.
Aussie entered, with Liz in tow. “What have you done to yourself this time?” Liz asked. She went to the bed and they hugged tightly.
“Coffee?” I asked. All three nodded.
Walking down the hall, I could still hear them talking and laughing. As I turned down the corner, I nearly bumped into Rudy, who was trying to keep a bottle of blackberry brandy tucked in his shirt. Anne smiled and before she asked I said, “That way,” and pointed to the open door.
I got lost trying to find the hospital cafeteria. They have these colored lines on the floor, yellow and green and red and blue, and you’re supposed to follow your line to get to where you want to go. I kept looking down and my line wasn’t there, and I’d have to retrace my steps until I found it again.
By the time I got to the cafeteria, Rudy was there already, standing in line. “Wasn’t I fast enough for him?” I asked.
“They’ve brought him oatmeal but he wants a real breakfast,” Rudy said, chuckling.
“What, he thinks he can snap his fingers and someone will jump to get him breakfast?”
A voice behind us said, “He’s serious about his breakfast.”
I turned and Sanchez smiled at me, and we hugged.
~ ~ ~
I'm on the train home now. There will be time and time again to think of these things. For now, the lurkers have eased back into their shadows, and the sun through the window has cast the spectrum on my page.