22

In my dream, her head was on my shoulder as I lay on my back, only the corner of carpet between us and the concrete floor. Her arm was around my rib cage. We were just lying there, sleeping.

God help me. The only teenaged guy in America who dreams of sleeping with girls, and just sleeping with them. And then my phone rang. It took two more rings before my fumbling hands found the phone lying on the unrolled carpet. It was 3:18 A.M. Ben was calling.

“Good morning, Ben,” I said.

“YESSS!!!!!” he answered, screaming, and I could tell right away that now was not the time to try to explain to him all I had learned and imagined about Margo. I could damn near smell the booze on his breath. That one word, in the way it was shouted, contained more exclamation points than anything Ben had ever said to me in his entire life.

“I take it prom is going well?”

“YESSSS! Quentin Jacobsen! The Q! America’s greatest Quentin! Yes!” His voice got distant then but I could still hear him. “Everybody, hey, shut up, hold on, shut up — QUENTIN! JACOBSEN! IS INSIDE MY PHONE!” There was a cheer then, and Ben’s voice returned. “Yes, Quentin! Yes! Bro, you have got to come over here.”

“Where is here?” I asked.

“Becca’s! Do you know where it is?”

As it happened, I knew precisely where it was. I’d been in her basement. “I know where it is, but it’s the middle of the night, Ben. And I’m in—”

“YESSS!!! You have to come right now. Right now!”

“Ben, there are more important things going on,” I answered.

“DESIGNATED DRIVER!”

“What?”

“You’re my designated driver! Yes! You are so designated! I love that you answered! That’s so awesome! I have to be home by six! And I designate you to get me there! YESSSSSSS!”

“Can’t you just spend the night there?” I asked.

“NOOOO! Booooo. Booo on Quentin. Hey, everybody! Boooo Quentin!” And then I was booed. “Everybody’s drunk. Ben drunk. Lacey drunk. Radar drunk. Nobody drive. Home by six. Promised Mom. Boo, Sleepy Quentin! Yay, Designated Driver! YESSSS!”

I took a long breath. If Margo were going to show up, she would have showed up by three. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YESSSSSS!!!! YES! YES!”

Ben was still making assertions of affirmation when I hung up the phone. I lay there for a moment, telling myself to get up, and then I did. Still half asleep, I crawled through Troll Holes past the library and into the office, then pulled open the back door and got into the minivan.

 

I turned in to Becca Arrington’s subdivision just before four. There were dozens of cars parked along both sides of Becca’s street, and I knew there would be more people inside, since many of them had been dropped off via limo. I found a spot a couple cars away from RHAPAW.

I had never seen Ben drunk. In tenth grade, I once drank a bottle of pink “wine” at a band party. It tasted as bad going down as it did coming up. It was Ben who sat with me in Cassie Hiney’s Winnie-the-Pooh — themed bathroom while I projectile-vomited pink liquid all over a painting of Eeyore. I think the experience soured both of us on alcoholic pursuits. Until tonight, anyway.

Now, I knew Ben was going to be drunk. I’d heard him on the phone. No sober person says “yes” that many times per minute. Nonetheless, when I pushed past some people smoking cigarettes on Becca’s front lawn and opened the door to her house, I did not expect to see Jase Worthington and two other baseball players holding a tuxedo-clad Ben upside down above a keg of beer. The spout of the beer keg was in Ben’s mouth, and the entire room was transfixed on him. They were all chanting in unison, “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty,” and for a moment, I thought Ben was getting — like — hazed or something. But no, as he sucked on that beer spout like it was mother’s milk, little trickles of beer spilled from the sides of his mouth, because he was smiling. “Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five,” the people shouted, and you could hear their enthusiasm. Apparently, something remarkable was taking place.

It all seemed so trivial, so embarrassing. It all seemed like paper kids having their paper fun. I made my way through the crowd toward Ben, and was surprised to happen across Radar and Angela.

“What the hell is this?” I asked.

Radar paused from counting and looked over at me. “Yes!” he said. “The Designated Driver cometh! Yes!”

“Why is everyone saying ‘yes’ so much tonight?”

“Good question,” Angela shouted to me. She puffed out her cheeks and sighed. She looked almost as annoyed as I felt.

“Hell yes, it’s a good question!” Radar said, holding a red plastic cup full of beer in each hand.

“They’re both his,” Angela explained to me calmly.

“Why aren’t you designated driver?” I asked.

“They wanted you,” she said. “Thought it would get you here.” I rolled my eyes. She rolled hers back, sympathetically.

“You must really like him,” I said, nodding toward Radar, who was holding both beers over his head, joining in the counting. Everybody seemed so proud of the fact that they could count.

“Even now he’s sort of adorable,” she answered.

“Gross,” I said.

Radar nudged me with one of the beer cups. “Look at our boy Ben! He’s some kind of autistic savant when it comes to keg stands. Apparently he’s like setting a world record right now or something.”

“What is a keg stand?” I asked.

Angela pointed at Ben. “That,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, it’s — I mean, how hard can it be to hang upside down?”

“Apparently, the longest keg stand in Winter Park history is sixty-two seconds,” she explained. “And it was set by Tony Yorrick,” who’s this gigantic guy who’d graduated when we were freshmen and now played for the University of Florida football team.

I was all for Ben setting records, but I couldn’t bring myself to join in as everyone shouted, “Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty, sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three!” And then Ben pulled the spout out of his mouth and screamed, “YESSS! I MUST BE THE GREATEST! I SHOOK UP THE WORLD!” Jase and some baseball players flipped him right-side-up and carried him around on their shoulders. And then Ben caught sight of me, pointed, and let out the loudest and most passionate “YESSSS!!!!!!” I’d ever heard. I mean, soccer players don’t get that excited about winning the World Cup.

Ben jumped off the baseball players’ shoulders, landing in an awkward crouch, and then swayed a bit on his way to standing. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “YES!” he said again. “Quentin is here! The Great Man! Let’s hear it for Quentin, the best friend of the fucking keg stand world record holder!” Jase rubbed the top of my head and said, “You’re the man, Q!” and then I heard Radar in my ear, “By the way, we are like folk heroes to these people. Angela and I left our afterparty to come here because Ben told me I’d be greeted as a king. I mean, they were chanting my name. Apparently they all think Ben is hilarious or something, and so they like us, too.”

To Radar, and also to everyone else, I said, “Wow.”

Ben turned away from us, and I watched him grab Cassie Hiney. His hands were on her shoulders, and she put her hands on his shoulders, and he said, “My prom date was almost prom queen,” and Cassie said, “I know. That’s great,” and Ben said, “I’ve wanted to kiss you every single day for the last three years,” and Cassie said, “I think you should,” and then Ben said, “YES! That’s awesome !” But he didn’t kiss Cassie. He just turned around to me and said, “Cassie wants to kiss me!” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “That’s so awesome .” And then he seemed to forget about Cassie and me both, as if the idea of kissing Cassie Hiney felt better than actually kissing her ever could.

Cassie said to me, “This party is so great, isn’t it?” and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “This is like the opposite of band parties, huh?” And I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Ben is a spaz, but I love him.” And I said, “Yeah.” “Plus he’s got really green eyes,” she added, and I said, “Uh-huh,” and then she said, “Everyone says you’re cuter, but I like Ben,” and I said, “Okay,” and she said, “This party is so great, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yeah.” Talking to a drunk person was like talking to an extremely happy, severely brain-damaged three-year-old.

Chuck Parson walked up to me just as Cassie walked away. “Jacobsen,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Parson,” I answered.

“You shaved my fucking eyebrow, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t shave it, actually,” I said. “I used a depilatory cream.”

He poked me quite hard in the middle of my chest. “You’re a douche,” he said, but he was laughing. “That took such big balls, bro. And now you’re all puppet master and shit. I mean, maybe I’m just drunk, but I’m feeling a little love for your douchey ass right now.”

“Thank you,” I said. I felt so detached from all this shit, all this high-school-is-ending-so-we-have-to-reveal-that-deep-down-we-all-love-everybody bullshit. And I imagined her at this party, or at thousands like this one. The life drawn out of her eyes. I imagined her listening to Chuck Parson babble at her and thinking about ways out, about the living ways out and the dead ways out. I could imagine the two paths with equal clarity.

“You want a beer, dicklicker?” Chuck asked. I might have forgotten he was even there, but the smell of booze on his breath made it hard to overlook his presence. I just shook my head, and he wandered off.

 

 

 

I wanted to go home, but I knew I couldn’t rush Ben. This was probably the single greatest day of his life. He was entitled to it.

So instead, I found a stairway and headed down to the basement. I’d been in the dark so long I was still craving it, and I just wanted to lie down somewhere halfway quiet and halfway dark and go back to imagining Margo. But as I walked past Becca’s bedroom, I heard some muffled noises — specifically, moanish noises — and so I paused outside her door, which was open just a crack.

I could see the top two-thirds of Jase, shirtless, on top of Becca, and she had her legs wrapped around him. Nobody was naked or anything, but they were headed in that direction. And maybe a better person would have turned away, but people like me don’t get a lot of chances to see people like Becca Arrington naked, so I stayed there in the doorway, peering into the room. And then they rolled around so Becca was on top of Jason, and she was sighing as she kissed him, and she was reaching down for her shirt. “Do you think I’m hot?” she said.

“God yeah, you are so hot, Margo,” Jase said.

“What!?” Becca said, furious, and it became quickly clear to me that I wasn’t going to see Becca naked. She started screaming; I backed away from the door; Jase spotted me and screamed, “What’s your problem?” And Becca shouted, “Screw him. Who gives a shit about him? What about me?! Why are you thinking about her and not me!”

That seemed like as good a time as any to take my leave of the situation, so I closed the door and went to the bathroom. I did need to pee, but mostly I just needed to be away from the human voice.

It always takes a few seconds for me to start peeing after all the equipment has been properly set up, and so I stood there for a second, waiting, and then I started peeing. I’d just gotten to the full-stream, shudder-of-relief part of peeing when a girl’s voice from the general area of the bathtub said, “Who’s there?”

And I said, “Uh, Lacey?”

“Quentin? What the hell are you doing here?” I wanted to stop peeing but couldn’t, of course. Peeing is like a good book in that it is very, very hard to stop once you start.

“Um, peeing,” I said.

“How’s it going?” she asked through the curtain.

“Um, fine?” I shook out the last of it, zipped my shorts, and flushed.

“You wanna hang out in the bathtub?” she asked. “That’s not a come-on.”

After a moment, I said, “Sure.” I pulled the shower curtain back. Lacey smiled up at me, and then pulled her knees up to her chest. I sat down across from her, my back against the cold sloping porcelain. Our feet were intertwined. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt and these cute little flip-flops. Her makeup was just a little smeared around her eyes. Her hair was half up, still styled for prom, and her legs were tan. It must be said that Lacey Pemberton was very beautiful. She was not the kind of girl who could make you forget about Margo Roth Spiegelman, but she was the kind of girl who could make you forget about a lot of things.

“How was prom?” I asked.

“Ben is really sweet,” she answered. “I had fun. But then Becca and I had a huge fight and she called me a whore and then she stood up on the couch upstairs and she shushed the entire party and then she told everyone I have an STD.”

I winced. “God,” I said.

“Yeah. I’m sort of ruined. It’s just. . God. It sucks, honestly, because. . it’s just so humiliating, and she knew it would be, and. . it sucks. So then I went to the bathtub and then Ben came down here and I told him to leave me alone. Nothing against Ben, but he wasn’t very good at, like, listening. He’s kinda drunk. I don’t even have it. I had it. It’s cured. Whatever. It’s just, I’m not a slut. It was one guy. One lame-ass guy. God, I can’t believe I ever told her. I should have just told Margo when Becca wasn’t around.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “The thing is that Becca is just jealous.”

“Why would she be jealous? She’s prom queen. She’s dating Jase. She’s the new Margo.”

My butt was sore against the porcelain, so I tried to rearrange myself. My knees were touching her knees. “No one will ever be the new Margo,” I said. “Anyway, you have what she really wants. People like you. People think you’re cuter.”

Lacey shrugged bashfully. “Do you think I’m superficial?”

“Well, yeah.” I thought of myself standing outside Becca’s bedroom, hoping she’d take her shirt off. “But so am I,” I added. “So is everyone.” I’d often thought, If only I had the body of Jase Worthington. Walked like I knew how to walk. Kissed like I knew how to kiss .

“But not in the same way. Ben and I are superficial in the same way. You don’t give a shit if people like you.”

Which was both true and not. “I care more than I’d like to,” I said.

“Everything sucks without Margo,” she said. She was drunk, too, but I didn’t mind her variety of drunk.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I want you to take me to that place,” she said. “That strip mall. Ben told me about it.”

“Yeah, we can go whenever you want,” I said. I told her I’d been there all night, that I’d found Margo’s nail polish and her blanket.

Lacey was quiet for a while, breathing through her open mouth. When she finally said it, she almost whispered it. Worded like a question and spoken like a statement: “She’s dead, isn’t she.”

“I don’t know, Lacey. I thought so until tonight, but now I don’t know.”

“She’s dead and we’re all. . doing this.”

I thought of the highlighted Whitman: “If no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content.” I said, “Maybe that’s what she wanted, for life to go on.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Margo,” she said, and I thought of my Margo, and Lacey’s Margo, and Mrs. Spiegelman’s Margo, and all of us looking at her reflection in different fun house mirrors. I was going to say something, but Lacey’s open mouth became truly slack-jawed, and she leaned her head against the cold gray tile of the bathroom wall, asleep.

 

It wasn’t until after two people had come into the bathroom to pee that I decided to wake her up. It was almost 5 A.M., and I needed to take Ben home.

“Lace, wake up,” I said, touching her flip-flop with my shoe.

She shook her head. “I like being called that,” she said. “You know that you’re, like, currently my best friend?”

“I’m thrilled,” I said, even though she was drunk and tired and lying. “So listen, we’re going to go upstairs together, and if anybody says anything about you, I will defend your honor.”

“Okay,” she said. And so we went upstairs together, and the party had thinned out a little, but there were still some baseball players, including Jase, over by the keg. Mostly there were people sleeping in sleeping bags all over the floor; some of them were squeezed onto the pullout couch. Angela and Radar were lying together on a love seat, Radar’s legs dangling over the side. They were sleeping over.

Just as I was about to ask the guys by the keg if they’d seen Ben, he ran into the living room. He wore a blue baby bonnet on his head and was wielding a sword made out of eight empty cans of Milwaukee’s Best Light, which had, I assumed, been glued together.

“I SEE YOU!” Ben shouted, pointing at me with the sword. “I SPY QUENTIN JACOBSEN! YESSS! Come here! Get on your knees!” he shouted.

“What? Ben, calm down.”

“KNEES!”

I obediently knelt, looking up at him.

He lowered the beer sword and tapped me on each shoulder. “By the power of the superglue beer sword, I hereby designate you my driver!”

“Thanks,” I said. “Don’t puke in the minivan.”

“YES!” he shouted. And then when I tried to get up, he pushed me back down with his non-beer-sworded hand, and he tapped me again with the beer sword, and he said, “By the power of the superglue beer sword, I hereby announce that you will be naked under your robe at graduation.”

“What?” I stood then.

“YES! Me and you and Radar! Naked under our robes! At graduation! It will be so awesome!”

“Well,” I said, “it will be really hot.”

“YES!” he said. “Swear you will do it! I already made Radar swear. RADAR, DIDN’T YOU SWEAR?”

Radar turned his head ever so slightly, and opened his eyes a slit. “I swore,” he mumbled.

“Well then, I swear, too,” I said.

“YES!” Then Ben turned to Lacey. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Ben.”

“No, I love you . Not like a sister loves a brother or like a friend loves a friend. I love you like a really drunk guy loves the best girl ever.” She smiled.

I took a step forward, trying to save him from further embarrassment, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “If we’re gonna get you home by six, we should be leaving,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “I just gotta thank Becca for this awesome party.”

So Lacey and I followed Ben downstairs, where he opened the door to Becca’s room and said, “Your party kicked so much ass! Even though you suck so much! It’s like instead of blood, your heart pumps liquid suck! But thanks for the beer!” Becca was alone, lying on top of her covers, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t even glance over at him. She just mumbled, “Oh, go to hell, shit-face. I hope your date gives you her crabs.”

Without a hint of irony in his voice, Ben answered, “Great talking to you!” and then closed the door. I don’t think he had the faintest idea he’d just been insulted.

And then we were upstairs again and getting ready to walk out the door. “Ben,” I said, “you’re going to have to leave the beer sword here.”

“Right,” he said, and then I grabbed the sword’s tip and tugged, but Ben refused to relinquish it. I was about to start screaming at his drunk ass when I realized he couldn’t let go of the sword.

Lacey laughed. “Ben, did you glue yourself to the beer sword?”

“No,” Ben answered. “I super glued. That way no one can steal it from me!”

“Good thinking,” Lacey deadpanned.

Lacey and I managed to break off all the beer cans except the one that was superglued directly to Ben’s hand. No matter how hard I pulled, Ben’s hand just limply followed along, like the beer was the string and his hand the puppet. Finally, Lacey just said, “We gotta go.” So we did. We strapped Ben into the backseat of the minivan. Lacey sat next to him, because “I should make sure he doesn’t puke or beat himself to death with his beer hand or whatever.”

But he was far enough gone for Lacey to feel comfortable talking about him. As I drove down the interstate, she said, “There’s something to be said for trying hard, you know? I mean, I know he tries too hard, but why is that such a bad thing? And he’s sweet, isn’t he?”

“I guess so,” I said. Ben’s head was lolling around, seemingly unconnected to a spine. He didn’t strike me as particularly sweet, but whatever.

I dropped Lacey off first on the other side of Jefferson Park. When she leaned over and pecked him on the mouth, he perked up enough to mumble, “Yes.” She walked up to the driver’s-side door on the way to her condo. “Thanks,” she said. I just nodded.

I drove across the subdivision. It wasn’t night and it wasn’t morning. Ben snored quietly in the back. I pulled up in front of his house, got out, opened the sliding door of the minivan, and unfastened his seat belt.

“Time to go home, Benners.”

He sniffed and shook his head, then awoke. He reached up to rub his eyes and seemed surprised to find an empty can of Milwaukee’s Best Light attached to his right hand. He tried to make a fist and dented the can some, but did not dislodge it. He looked at it for a minute, and then nodded. “The Beast is stuck to me,” he noted.

He climbed out of the minivan and staggered up the sidewalk to his house, and when he was standing on the front porch, he turned around, smiling. I waved at him. The beer waved back.

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