fifty-two days before

After everyone left;after the Colonel’s mom showed up in a beat-up hatchback and he threw his giant duffel bag into the backseat; and after he said, “I’m not much for saying good-bye. I’ll see you in a week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”; and after a green limousine arrived for Lara, whose father was the only doctor in some small town in southern Alabama; and after I joined Alaska on a harrowing, we-don’t-need-no-stinking-brakes drive to the airport to drop off Takumi; and after the campus settled into an eerie quiet, with no doors slamming and no music playing and no one laughing and no one screaming; after all that: We made our way down to the soccer field, and she took me to edge of the field where the woods start, the same steps I’d walked on my way to being thrown into the lake. Beneath the full moon she cast a shadow, and you could see the curve from her waist to her hips in the shadow, and after a while she stopped and said, “Dig.”

And I said, “Dig?” and she said, “Dig,” and we went on like that for a bit, and then I got on my knees and dug through the soft black dirt at the edge of the woods, and before I could get very far, my fingers scratched glass, and I dug around the glass until I pulled out a bottle of pink wine — Strawberry Hill, it was called, I suppose because if it had not tasted like vinegar with a dash of maple syrup, it might have tasted like strawberries.

“I have a fake ID,” she said, “but it sucks. So every time I go to the liquor store, I try to buy ten bottles of this, and some vodka for the Colonel. And so when it finally works, I’m covered for a semester. And then I give the Colonel his vodka, and he puts it wherever he puts it, and I take mine and bury it.”

“Because you’re a pirate,” I said.

“Aye, matey. Precisely. Although wine consumption has risen a bit this semester, so we’ll need to take a trip tomorrow. This is the last bottle.” She unscrewed the cap — no corks here — sipped, and handed it to me. “Don’t worry about the Eagle tonight,” she said.

“He’s just happy most everyone’s gone. He’s probably masturbating for the first time in a month.”

I worried about it for a moment as I held the bottle by the neck, but I wanted to trust her, and so I did. I took a minor sip, and as soon as I swallowed, I felt my body rejecting the stinging syrup of it. It washed back up my esophagus, but I swallowed hard, and there, yes, I did it. I was drinking on campus.

So we lay in the tall grass between the soccer field and the woods, passing the bottle back and forth and tilting our heads up to sip the wince-inducing wine. As promised in the list, she brought a Kurt Vonnegut book, Cat’s Cradle, and she read aloud to me, her soft voice mingling with the the frogs’ croaking and the grasshoppers landing softly around us. I did not hear her words so much as the cadence of her voice. She’d obviously read the book many times before, and so she read flawlessly and confidently, and I could hear her smile in the reading of it, and the sound of that smile made me think that maybe I would like novels better if Alaska Young read them to me. After a while, she put down the book, and I felt warm but not drunk with the bottle resting between us — my chest touching the bottle and her chest touching the bottle but us not touching each other, and then she placed her hand on my leg.

Her hand just above my knee, the palm flat and soft against my jeans and her index finger making slow, lazy circles that crept toward the inside of my thigh, and with one layer between us, God I wanted her. And lying there, amid the tall, still grass and beneath the star-drunk sky, listening to the just-this-side-of-inaudible sound of her rhythmic breathing and the noisy silence of the bullfrogs, the grasshoppers, the distant cars rushing endlessly on 1-65, I thought it might be a fine time to say the Three Little Words. And I steeled myself to say them as I stared up at that starriest night, convinced myself that she felt it, too, that her hand so alive and vivid against my leg was more than playful, and fuck Lara and fuck Jake because I do, Alaska Young, I do love you and what else matters but that and my lips parted to speak and before I could even begin to breathe out the words, she said, “It’s not life or death, the labyrinth.”

“Urn, okay. So what is it?”

 

“Suffering,” she said. “Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?”

“What’s wrong?” I asked. And I felt the absence of her hand on me.

“Nothing’s wrong. But there’s always suffering, Pudge. Homework or malaria or having a boyfriend who lives far away when there’s a good-looking boy lying next to you. Suffering is universal. It’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about.”

I turned to her. “Oh, so maybe Dr. Hyde’s class isn’t total bullshit.” And both of us lying on our sides, she smiled, our noses almost touching, my unblinking eyes on hers, her face blushing from the wine, and I opened my mouth again but this time not to speak, and she reached up and put a finger to my lips and said, “Shh. Shh. Don’t ruin it.”

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