Lauren and Carrie
A sort of not so real or fictional ice tale.
Tell me that you never wanted my lovin'.
Tell me that you never,
Tell me, tell me one more time.
-One More Time-
Chance is the miracle that happens every day. It is the equalizer between the smart and the fortunate. Chance is a gift from the past, the way things were set in motion by people and falling rocks long ago so that if you were lucky, your finger would catch the ring as the pantomime horse flew past, and you would have it, smooth and shiny yellow-brown in your hand. And it would be yours. But only if you were lucky. And only if your finger was held out.
And only if you were smart enough to ride.
When Lauren's mom left she knelt close to him and kissed his tear-streaked face. She told him that someday he'd understand why she had to go. She told him to be a good boy for his father.
He screamed and grabbed her arms in his six-year old hands. He wrapped himself around her legs. She pried him away, tears in her eyes, and when she glanced at her husband for help, he looked away.
"You did this," he said, shaking. Red faced. Everyone in the Sanders house was crying that day.
Geri Sanders found the strength she'd been told she needed to make this move. Best for everyone.
She pushed her child away. He fell onto his behind, sitting, screaming as if his throat were being cut.
Then she swung open the front door of the house and ran out. The door moved so fast it ricocheted on its hinges and slammed shut, then open again.
Lauren watched his mother climb into a waiting car, his father hurrying outside screaming obscenities, shaking his fists, falling to his knees on the front lawn as the car left a vacant spot in front of their home.
The last thing Lauren remembered about the day his mother left was his father sobbing on the front lawn, his face in his hands, and the front door slamming closed on a gust of wind.
Lauren built his life by crusade. He invented goals for himself and he dedicated himself fully to each until accomplished. He tore a picture out of a book, used it as a template and carved a Maltese cross from a piece of plywood. He put it on a chain and wore it around his neck. In class he daydreamed of being a knight of the round table. A Knight Templar. The Red Baron. An avenging angel.
And then he needed someone to save. After his mother abandoned them, his crusade was simply to help his father get out of bed. Then to get his father to work and himself to school. In school he made his grades a crusade. He would not settle but to excel at every subject. To be first in every foot race. To throw a baseball farther than any of his classmates.
From grammar school through college he graduated at the top of every class he attended. He played first string on all the football, baseball, and hockey teams. He made having friends a crusade. He formed cliques and clubs, and in high school he consolidated forces with other kids in his neighborhood and formed a mowing/shoveling consortium that offered yearlong subscriptions to snow free driveways and groomed front lawns. In the time he had between gassing mowers, triple-session football practices, term papers, science fair projects, cleaning his room, and bathing, he performed piano concertos with the city philharmonic.
He attended Princeton University and got his PhD in physics at an age when most of his peers were finishing their Bachelor's degrees. He accepted an assistant-professorship at the University of Missouri in his hometown of St. Louis and moved in with his father, who had never remarried and had become hardened and reclusive.
After two years his father developed blockages in his heart and required surgery. Lauren stood at his father's bedside, pre op, and held his dad's hand.
"Suppose I don't make it," his father said, not willing to ask the rest of the question.
"You'll be all right, Dad. I'll see you in four hours."
"But suppose you don't. You work so much. Are you happy?"
"Everything's going to be fine, Dad," Lauren said as a nurse injected a drug into his father's IV.
"I've stopped hating your mother. I want you to know I think you have to."
"I've never hated her, Dad. I just don't understand her."
Lauren's father loosened his grip on his son's hand. "Anger is bad to have in you, even when it's bringing you so much."
"Go to sleep, Dad," Lauren said. And then a couple of orderlies wheeled him away.
He died on the operating table, an hour later.
Lauren had his father cremated and spread the ashes in a wheat field on the farm where he had been born.
On the day he watched his father dissolve before a building Missouri storm, he vowed he would never lie to himself again. And then Lauren invented a new crusade.
Until that moment everyone aboard the plane knew the odds of surviving a crash or even a forced landing were close to nil. They didn't feel it until the pilot asked them to take their seats and an air force mechanic hurried from the cockpit to the wing pump access.
The mechanic plugged his headset into a jack Lauren hadn't seen until that moment. He said a few words into his microphone, pulled an access panel off the aircraft wall, and reached inside. His hand came out glistening. He shook his head, said something into the microphone, and then turned to see Lauren staring at him and shrugged.
The inside of a C-131 transport plane is utilitarian. Pipes and cables run along the walls and ceiling, exposed. The floor is perforated steel. A cylindrical roller protrudes slightly from each perforation so that cargo containers can be pushed along the floor without the use of dollies. Walking is hazardous because one must place his boots between the rollers to prevent tripping.
There is little sound insulation, so that while the aircraft is in flight the engine noise is so loud earplugs must be worn to prevent hearing damage.
None of the other passengers moved, though all of them knew something was happening. The left outside engine was sputtering. The continuous drone became a warble they felt in their chests.
Lauren stepped between the rollers to where the mechanic had been and examined the open access. He told himself he could figure out what was happening. He started as he would with any problem. Figure the odds of this pipe being fuel or hydraulics. Look for clues. Build the case.
He determined the location of the fuel leak in less than forty-five seconds. He determined the reason for the leak in another five, and would have told the mechanics if the crew hadn't manhandled him back to his spot in the webbing and strapped him in and shouted to him he'd be arrested upon landing if he got up again.
The other passengers stared at him as if he were a saboteur. He told them, "We're going to land a little short."
Only the closest ones to him heard him.
Then he pointed to one of the crewmen who'd forced him back into his seat and said, "He's going to trip," as the man's boot caught one of the rollers and he fell backward.
Lauren keyed the lock of dorm room 208. Inside, pillows and blankets were piled on both beds in the unlit gloom, so he chose the one farthest from the window and tossed his orange travel bags on the floor beside it.
He sat on the edge and took off his hot white bunny boots. Tore off his parka and tossed it on the bags. He lay back on the stained, uncased pillow and stared at the ceiling, listening to water gurgle in the pipes. Outside the window a payloader beeped as it backed up, then drove past. Someone trudged down the hall dragging something heavy. Another arrivee.
Lauren closed his eyes and tried to rest his eyes. As is wont to happen when one relaxes after a long trip, remembrances filled the peaceful darkness of his mind. Duties he'd nearly forgotten flashed liked images on a movie screen. The instrument was going to arrive at cargo as soon as the truck could make it in from the sea ice and he should go make the preliminary check for damage. After six, everything would shut down for the night and the day would be lost.
He pulled himself to sitting, unzipped one of his bags, found his hiking boots, and slid them on. As he got up to leave the shiny edge of false gold inside the bag caught his eye and he thought it best to mark his space like he would do if he was back at the university.
He put the small vial and picture on the table next to the unmade bed, checked to make sure he had his room key in his pocket, said, "We're here," to the air around him, and then headed out to find someone to tell him where the cargo building was.
Geographically, McMurdo station is the simplest place on earth. It's the largest human habitation on the continent of Antarctica. Its purpose is to keep people alive.
Fifteen hundred people crowd twenty prefabricated buildings built by the Navy and lashed to the rocks on Ross Island. People and supplies are delivered via military aircraft that land on solid ice without the benefit radar or other modern instrumented telemetry.
The published objective of the station is the support of polar science. The unpublished objective is to maintain an American foothold in at the bottom of the earth should the need arise for one. Very few people in the civilized world know about Antarctic operations, and few would care if they did.
Fifteen hundred people cram into the twenty buildings to eat, sleep, and perform a task called "doing science" and the earth spins on its axis in bliss. Doing science involves tagging penguins at the Cape Royds rookery. It involves observing glaciers calving and iceberg movement. It involves filling the galley with freeze-dried eggs and frozen yogurt. It requires trucks to be driven, ice to be drilled, volcanic soil to be bulldozed, sewage to be treated and piped, and electricity to be generated.
It also requires four million cubic feet of helium to be delivered and pumped into a balloon.
Lauren trudged up the hill from his dorm to the square blue building bearing a sign that read: USAP Cargo. He stepped out of the cold wind and into a the dry blast from a portable jet engine. From a boom box layered in duct tape, Jerry Garcia sang about Uncle John's band. Toward the back of the building a couple of workers in beige overalls played polo atop Vietnam-era military green forklifts whacking at a half deflated soccer ball with eight-foot lengths of aluminum conduit.
One of the workers saw Lauren and stopped the forklift.
"Can anyone play?" Lauren asked.
The worker dismounted and approached him. It wasn't until she was upon him that he realized it was a woman. Her cherubic face bore a smile beneath a Swiss ski cap dangling braided purple ties. She was shorter and so had to look up to see Lauren's name tag.
"You're a boy," she said.
Lauren made a show of looking into his pants in surprise. "Would you please tell my mother. She still thinks I'm pregnant because I'm missing my period," he said, and the woman laughed and punched him in the arm.
"I bet you get that all the time," she said.
"I bet I do."
"What I mean is, we saw your name on the manifest and we thought you were a girl."
"Well, don't be too disappointed, I can PMS as well as anyone," Lauren said, then looking past her, "Any idea where I could find a particle detector around here? About forty tanks of helium? The detector is about, well, this big," he held his hands out as wide as he could, "like the size of a Volkswagen Jetta, and the helium tanks look like ballistic missiles."
The woman's smile never broke. She scanned his face as if reading his lips as he spoke.
Then Lauren started seeing her. The light from her smiling eyes poured into him and he realized they were blue and her face was round and red on the cheeks and the tip of her nose. Her lips were slightly chapped but her eyelashes seemed to reach to the bangs that poked from under her hat. Looking at her made him feel light and ticklish. It was a strange feeling and he didn't know what to do about it. So he smiled in his best clown imitation and shrugged as if he'd just been asked directions to Toledo. The woman laughed again and the tickling in his gut made him feel happier. She put her gloved fingers into her mouth, bit down, and pulled her hand out of the glove. A sheaf of greasy paper came out of her pocket in her bare hand.
"You're PH-0034? Thirteen hundred pounds? Yeah, we sent Brian out with the big pickle to pick up that one. Might be a while. Maybe tomorrow."
"I was kinda hoping..." Lauren started, but she stopped him with her smile again. He noticed she had grease under her fingernails and a multi-colored braided string around her wrist. An idea grew inside him that he should touch the string, the fingernails, the wrist. Hold her hand. Get closer to the smiling.
The feeling inside him intensified and he had to think hard to get his own hands to stop moving toward her. In his mind he set up a little recording that reminded him, "You don't know this woman," when every sense he had told him he did. He began to wonder if he was ill.
The other worker got off his forklift and approached them. He seemed to be about twenty. Long hair. Snowboarding clothes under his overalls. He started by ignoring Lauren and saying, "Let's go. 001's unloaded..." But then he gave Lauren a quick glance and sighed.
The woman punched her partner in the chest.
"But, Carrie, Betty's gonna find out," he complained, and she punched him again.
"Get your ass onto the dock and start. I'll be right there."
The guy trudged back to the rear of the building. Carrie put on her glove and then touched Lauren's arm. "Your thinger detecter whatchama beeker device will be here tomorrow. First thing."
"What?" he said, because he couldn't hear her through his eyes.
"Your cargo will be here tomorrow by eight."
She drew a line across her chest. "Cross my heart."
"Ok, then," Lauren said. He raised his hands. Taking a few steps backward felt like breaking steel cables. Turning for the door felt like walking into death.
He heard her say, "See you later, cutie," as his hand hit the door handle and the cold seeped in the crack, hit his face and took his breath. He waited too long. When he turned, she was gone and all he had left was his own life.
At dinner the teammates gathered around plates of food that resembled turkey burgers resembling hamburgers. The catsup was real. The mustard was real. The bread tasted like it had been scraped from the bottom of dirty dinner plates that came off of a cross-country flight after spending four hours on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open.
The eight of them swallowed everything because their minds were in their eyes and not their mouths.
"They have burgers here," one said.
"I heard they have real turkey for Thanksgiving. I heard they have Belgian waffles for breakfast on Sunday and the frozen yogurt machine is on all the time."
"A bottle of Jack Daniel's is only ten bucks."
Lauren was only half listening when the conversation changed to the work at hand. The science. The balloon they were going to launch with the particle detector he designed. Cosmic rays made from nuclei of heavy atoms like iron were going to be trapped. The fundamental forces of the universe were going to unfold themselves at his insistance. He knew that god could not hide from this crusade.
The team acted as if Lauren was listening intently because he always did. But he was inside his mind, seeing the woman smile. It hadn't started bothering him that he couldn't focus because he was sitting inside a soft pillow of those eyes in his mind, the sound of her voice calling him "cutie".
The project lead asked him if the detector was okay. Lauren heard him, and then realized it was the third time he was asked.
"What's the matter, Larry? Brain frostbit?"
He said, "Nah. Just thinking things through. I don't know how things work here, yet. They said the detector would be at cargo by eight tomorrow. They sent some kind of pickle thing out to get it. Forklift. I'll be there at eight to check it out but you know, maybe you have to slip someone a twenty to get something done."
"That's ridiculous. Those people are paid to do what we want--" said his boss, and Lauren pursed his lips.
"We can play it any way you want."
And so on until no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get her off the front of his brain, couldn't stop seeing the way the girl's bangs hung like a piece of ragged cloth from underneath her purple hat. Hat with the skiiers on it. Maybe she knitted it herself. She seemed like the knitting type.
There are crusades and there are quests. There are grails and there are crosses to bear to gain them. There are tasks and men up to them. There is denial of fact and belief one cannot fail because one never has.
One can walk the streets of McMurdo station and imagine he is somewhere in Minnesota. He can step over the boulders and icy puddles and consider himself in the Chicago suburbs in January.
A man can stand at the end of the earth and convince himself he is where he is supposed to be, when he knows the God who made men made this place first. For this was Eden before the apple fell into the hand of Eve, and a continent of lava and rock and ice cannot hide its beauty from the soul of a man who dares to come here to find her.
When Lauren stepped into his room he heard someone in the shower. There was an orange bag on the other unmade bed in the room.
He calculated the odds. Weighed the facts at hand. Ninety percent chance the shower occupant was female. His name had caused gender confusion again.
He'd feign surprise. He'd start at the window, staring out. That way when the woman emerged from the bathroom he could turn in faux shock, cover his eyes, and pretend to be embarrassed.
"Holy shit," he practiced to himself. No. No profanity with someone you don't know. "Oh my god," he whispered to himself, took a half breath inward, and covered his eyes. No. Too ingenuine. Try something that seems more real. "Damn!" he said to the window, and seeing his reflection realized he was no actor. This was going to be tough. Maybe he should just laugh. "Heh heh, they really screwed up down in housing. I'll get this fixed tomorrow," he said to the window. "I'll get it fixed, or maybe you can...or we could just try it out. Heh? What did you say? I won't tell if you don't..."
From behind him came a woman's voice, "Who are you talking to?"
He turned with a start. Sucked in half a breath he couldn't control.
She had a towel around her head and one around her body at her armpits. She pulled the one from her hair and began to rub it against her wet head. "Someone outside?"
He saw her eyes first. Part of his mind began to calculate the quantity, the essence, the equations of the radiation she emitted, black body, quantum mechanical. And then those ideas faded into gray noise. His eyes felt wet. He felt something vaguely sharp in his sinuses. Couldn't figure out what to do with his hands. Suddenly they belonged nowhere.
One hand shot up to his head, ran his fingers through his hair. Something warm was coming from him and he couldn't understand--increased blood flow? It just faded with the rest of his thoughts to warm and gray muck.
He heard himself say, "Um..." and imagined that once just a few moments ago he had lots of things he thought he'd say.
"You're probably wondering how I got this slot," she said, tossing the towel onto the bed. "Well. They were full down at MMI and Hotel California. My dad used to be a big shot at NSF. So, look, if you make a stink I go back to a quad down the hill and..." At that point she turned and took off the other towel and it made Lauren swallow rivers.
He sat on his bed as she dressed and continued with her explanation. Eventually she said, "So if you don't mind not having another beaker in here, I sure don't."
Lauren shook his head as she finished getting dressed and then sat on the edge of her bed to put on her hiking boots. He said, "Sure. I mean, no. I mean I won't say anything if you won't."
"Good," she said. She stood and held out her hand. "Carrie Blank."
He took her hand and at first thought to kiss it, and then gave it a gentle shake. "Lauren Sanders. I think we met before. You look different naked."
"You gotta realize, I thought you were a girl beaker. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I was scamming my way in with a guy."
"I believe you."
Carrie looked at the picture and false gold vial on Lauren's night stand. She said, "Geri Marin?" and no matter how hard he tried Lauren couldn't stop his shoulders from shrugging.
"You don't seem like a radical feminist," Carrie said. "I mean, she's kind of off the deep end on a whole bunch a shit. Too much for me, mostly. You're into that?"
"She's..." and Lauren couldn't speak when she looked into his eyes. It made Carrie laugh and filled him with a feeling like sleeping while awake. Like nothing could go wrong. Like every broken bone and eyestrain headache he could remember had been a joyous experience.
"She's kind of a crackpot, dude," Carrie said.
"She's my mom."
She twirled on her heels. "Oh shit. Well. Now I'm a total asshole. There you go again, Carrie. Screw everything up." And she rubbed her face and flailed an arm and headed for a door, her face flushed.
"No wait--" Lauren said. He got up. "No. It's okay. She's crazy. She's whatever. It's okay, no hurt feelings."
"You sure?" she asked him, and again he realized how much taller than her he was. How she had to look up to see into him. How everything about her felt like x-rays. Like all of her could be inside him.
He wanted to tell her everything. How he felt when his mother left. How hard he worked to get where he was in life. What it felt like laying awake alone at night in his apartment at the university on weekends when everyone else was out and he was studying. Learning. Making ground on his crusade.
He settled on saying, "Yep. Happens all the time."
"Ok, then. Well, I gotta be going. Got to go to the stitch and bitch over in the lounge. They're waiting for me."
Inside him were the words, "Do you feel this weird warm stuff inside? Does it stop you from thinking?" They wanted to come out and he played them in his mind and realized if he said them he'd seem psychotic to her.
So he said, "Ok. I'll probably be here when you get back."
But she didn't move, and she was so close he could hold her hand if he reached, but he'd forgotten how to move his arms, looking into her eyes and watching them glisten in the half-light the sun made behind the room shades. And it felt like dying. And it felt like everything he'd ever worked for in his life was drifting away. And his crusade called to him. And he knew he'd never win. And it felt perfectly okay.
She said, "Are you always this intense?" She inched a centimeter closer and it made his heart jump.
"I don't know."
Her smallest finger touched his smallest finger and electricity took over his arm. His hand folded around the rest of her hand.
"Did you ever read this guy..." he started to say, but her free arm slid around his waist and stopped him.
"Are you always this cute?" The breath of her words touched his face.
"I don't know," he said.
"What do you know?" Her breasts touched his chest. Her waist, his own.
"I know lots of things."
And she said, "So then, do you know what's going to happen next?"
"Depends on what you think about what I have to say."
"Which is?" she said, never taking her eyes from his, and he felt no embarrassment or discomfort staring into them, being absorbed by them.
"Joseph Campbell believed there was such a thing--that two people who'd never seen each other before in their lives could meet and just know each other."
"You think you know me?"
And now the words came to him and he was happy he was going to say them. He wouldn't stop. "I'm talking about--"
She silenced him with her fingertips held to his lips. A tear rolled down the side of one of her eyes and left a shiny stain on her rosy cheek. "Don't say it. Please." She touched her fingers to her own lips as if keeping something inside.
Lauren said it was okay. He wanted her not to cry but couldn't stop that she was. He felt it must have been genetic, instinctive reflexes born deep in his DNA, because as she closed her eyes and shut off the beautiful light he felt himself drawn closer as if by a gravitational force he'd had no name for.
When they kissed he knew he'd never kissed anyone before so there was no reason for him to know how to do what he was doing, but it happened anyway. The thought ran through his mind that the inside of her mouth tasted just like his, only a little different, and he could have known that if he'd only ever contimplated the problem of mouth tasting.
"What's in the little gold tube?" she asked him when they stopped for a second.
"Tell you later," he said, and closed his eyes and kissed her. Something inside him made him feel he needed to keep kissing her to stay alive, which he wanted very much.
And he wondered if he'd ever find his crusade again. Soon he stopped wondering. The sun spun overhead. Time passed. For the first time in his life he had no idea what to do next.
So he would float on fortune's river.
Continued -> The Boy in the Belfry