twenty days after

It was Sunday,and the Colonel and I decided against the cafeteria for dinner, instead walking off campus and across Highway 119 to the Sunny Konvenience Kiosk, where we indulged in a well-balanced meal of two oatmeal cream pies apiece. Seven hundred calories. Enough energy to sustain a man for half a day. We sat on the curb in front of the store, and I finished dinner in four bites.

“I’m going to call Jake tomorrow, just so you know. I got his phone number from Takumi.”

“Fine,” I said.

I heard a bell jangle behind me and turned toward the opening door.

“Y’all’s loitering,” said the woman who’d just sold us dinner.

“We’re eating,” the Colonel answered.

The woman shook her head and ordered, as if to a dog, “Git.”

So we walked behind the store and sat by the stinking, fetid Dumpster.

“Enough with the fine’s already, Pudge. That’s ridiculous. I’m going to call Jake, and I’m going to write down everything he says, and then we’re going to sit down together and try and figure out what happened.”

“No. You’re on your own with that. I don’t want to know what happened between her and Jake.”

The Colonel sighed and pulled a pack of Pudge Fund cigarettes of his jeans pocket. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to! Do I have provide you with an in-depth analysis of every decision I make?”

The Colonel lit the cigarette with a lighter I’d paid for and took a drag. “Whatever. It needs to be figured out, and I need your help to do it, because between the two of us we knew her pretty well. So that’s that.”

I stood up and stared down at him sitting smugly, and he blew a thin stream of smoke at my face, and I’d had enough. “I’m tired of following orders, asshole! I’m not going to sit with you and discuss the finer points of her relationship with Jake, goddamn it. I can’t say it any clearer: / don’t want to know about them. I already know what she told me, and that’s all I need to know, and you can be a condescending prick as long as you’d like, but I’m not going to sit around and chat with you about how goddamned much she loved Jake! Now give me my cigarettes.” The Colonel threw the pack on the ground and was up in a flash, a fistful of my sweater in his hand, trying but failing to pull me down to his height.

“You don’t even care about her!” he shouted. “All that matters is you and your precious fucking fantasy that you and Alaska had this goddamned secret love affair and she was going to leave Jake for you and you’d live happily ever after. But she kissed a lot of guys, Pudge. And if she were here, we both know that she would still be Jake’s girlfriend and that there’d be nothing but drama between the two of you — not love, not sex, just you pining after her and her like, ‘You’re cute, Pudge, but I love Jake.’ If she loved you so much, why did she leave you that night?

And if you loved her so much, why’d you help her go? I was drunk. What’s your excuse?”

The Colonel let go of my sweater, and I reached down and picked up the cigarettes. Not screaming, not through clenched teeth, not with the veins pulsing in my forehead, but calmly. Calmly. I looked down at the Colonel and said, “Fuck you.”

The vein-pulsing screaming came later, after I had jogged across Highway 119 and through the dorm circle and across the soccer field and down the dirt road to the bridge, when I found myself at the Smoking Hole. I picked up a blue chair and threw it against the concrete wall, and the clang of plastic on concrete echoed beneath the bridge as the chair fell limply on its side, and then I lay on my back with my knees hanging over the precipice and screamed. I screamed because the Colonel was a self-satisfied, condescending bastard, and I screamed because he was right, for I did want to believe that I’d had a secret love affair with Alaska. Did she love me? Would she have left Jake for me? Or was it just another impulsive Alaska moment? It was not enough to be the last guy she kissed.

I wanted to be the last one she loved. And I knew I wasn’t. I knew it, and I hated her for it. I hated her for not caring about me. I hated her for leaving that night, and I hated myself, too, not only because I let her go but because if I had been enough for her, she wouldn’t have even wanted to leave. She would have just lain with me and talked and cried, and I would have listened and kissed at her tears as they pooled in her eyes.

I turned my head and looked at one of the little blue plastic chairs on its side. I wondered if there would ever be a day when I didn’t think about Alaska, wondered whether I should hope for a time when she would be a distant memory — recalled only on the anniversary of her death, or maybe a couple of weeks after, remembering only after having forgotten.

I knew that I would know more dead people. The bodies pile up. Could there be a space in my memory for each of them, or would I forget a little of Alaska every day for the rest of my life?

Once, early on in the year, she and I had walked down to the Smoking Hole, and she jumped into Culver Creek with her flip-flops still on. She stepped across the creek, picking her steps carefully over the mossy rocks, and grabbed a waterlogged stick from the creek bank. As I sat on the concrete, my feet dangling toward the water, she overturned rocks with the stick and pointed out the skittering crawfish.

“You boil ’em and then suck the heads out,” she said excitedly.

“That’s where all the good stuff is — the heads.”

She taught me everything I knew about crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry. She made me different.

I lit a cigarette and spit into the creek. “You can’t just make me different and then leave,” I said out loud to her.

“Because I was fine before, Alaska. I was fine with just me and last words and school friends, and you can’t just make me different and then die.” For she had embodied the Great Perhaps — she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps. I could call everything the Colonel said and did “fine.” I could try to pretend that I didn’t care anymore, but it could never be true again. You can’t just make yourself matter and then die, Alaska, because now I am irretrievably different, and I’m sorry I let you go, yes, but you made the choice. You left me Perhapsless, stuck in your goddamned labyrinth. And now I don’t even know if you chose the straight and fast way out, if you left me like this on purpose. And so I never knew you, did I? I can’t remember, because I never knew.

 

And as I stood up to walk home and make my peace with the Colonel, I tried to imagine her in that chair, but I could not remember whether she crossed her legs. I could still see her smiling at me with half of Mona Lisa’s smirk, but I couldn’t picture her hands well enough to see her holding a cigarette. I needed, I decided, to really know her, because I needed more to remember. Before I could begin the shameful process of forgetting the how and the why of her living and dying, I needed to learn it: How. Why. When. Where. What.

At Room 43, after quickly offered and accepted apologies, the Colonel said, “We’ve made a tactical decision to push back calling Jake. We’re going to pursue some other avenues first.”

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