She says in fact it's worse than that
; it's not just chaotic, it's impossible.
I tell her it's a function of being 20 and lonely too many years and that everybody gets this; I resist the urge to add that in fact it's not that interesting.
She says on her good days, she is a furious locomotive, full speed ahead. On bad ones, she is the reverse of the inspirational story - a train sliding backwards down the hill. I can't, I can't, I can't, I think I can't. And it's not just that the world fades grey and chaotic on bad days; it's that it gets impossible. I nod and nod and ash my cigarette.
It's not that I don't understand. It's that I don't want to. I want to have graduated the school of postadolescent angst and moved on to whatever is next, whatever is more interesting.
Marlene, rather lively and verbose for herself, says, The hard part is you don't feel your own pain. The signals are crossed, like the time on Northern Exposure when everyone dreamed everyone else's dreams. I see the old man on the bench at the mall, sleeping restlessly, with post-traumatic tics. I, suddenly, am shaken with nightmares of combat, memories that aren't even mine. It is the little girl with the serious face, who turns to me in the deli and says to me, You need a chocolate cookie, who brings me to blubbering.
That's a bad day for me. I should be made happy at all these bursts of empathy, but instead I walk around with the sense that we are all living the same lucid nightmare, that we are buying extra deodorant to cover panic sweat and tears.
I don't admit this is more than I can bear, that when I approached her at the bar I was merely curious as to what lay behind her bespectacled and in front of her tidy bun. Curiosity is many steps from commitment, however. I even told her that night that with her serious face and dark-framed glasses and long dress, she was a vision right out of soft-core porno. She was hip enough to say, in a staged and sultry whisper, Please help me explore my repressed sexuality, tugging at her collar.
But here she is - same bar, same low-cut blouse - delivering a monologue that, more than anything she has ever said, cements our position several steps past curiosity, into something quite unknown and surprising and comfortable.
I take a drag on my cigarette. I like Marlene for not telling me that smoking causes cancer, like most of my previous girls did, as if I did not know. I blow a smoke ring and survey the room: bright, loud twentysomething faces thrilled at the sight of each other's faces, slapping backs, shaking hands, spilling beer on each other's T-shirts. I check Marlene's face.
I never know if I should trust alcohol or not, she says. I can't tell if it's a catalyst for empathy or merely a screen on which illusory empathy is projected, only to be replaced by a headache and a still darker version of the same collective nightmare.
I say, with an exaggerated slur, that I am just too drunk to know what to say to that. She points to the Buddha-like face of the man behind the bar. She says, I was talking about the bad part, just to prepare you.
But there's a good part, too. It might be false; it's only temporary and results in throbbing headache and dry heaves and cottonmouthed apologies. But it's something. It's part of something. It's what we get, when we come to college. We get drunk. We make friends and make enemies and form secular families and dye our hair purple and argue about things that don't matter to anyone anywhere else, heatedly. We sing Biz Markie at the tops of our lungs, with great enthusiasm. We break other's hearts and bones. We experiment.
Maybe we wake from the nightmare and realize we were wrong, that it's going to be OK. I'm telling you this so you know I'm not a drag of a human being. I'm telling you this to cheer you up.
Are you? I say.
I study her bespectacled face; the low tavern light has cast some odd shadows but she is still beautiful, still pale and flushed and lively as hell. It is the face of someone in discovery, someone who is just learning the names of the stars or of her own body parts, after wondering for years. It is a face glowing from the lightbulb over her head, trying out words and ideas with me, an upper lip frosty with beer foam mustache.
I tell her of course because of course, she's right. I am enormous with it, grinning broadly, shifting nervously on the bench; I reach across the table to grab her hand. Because she is, and because I am.