The Center of the Universe
by Eugie Foster
With a class numbering only seventy-two, my high school reunions were more like family get-togethers. The class of ’83 was a demoralizing family though, filled with peers like distant cousins who knew me when I was gawky and spastic, excruciatingly self-conscious in my metamorphosing skin. I’d avoided them — classmates, reunions, my estranged family — easy to do when I lived four states away. But, as with other family gatherings, it was death that brought me back home to my twenty-year reunion: Marc’s funeral.
His mother, a woman I remembered as an intensely assertive homemaker, had phoned me three days ago. They’d found him on some quiet side road, a 9mm bullet propelled at high velocity through his brain. Nothing missing, no signs of struggle, but no gun either. A stumper to the fine officers of Concorde, Indiana, and a nagging riddle to me. But I’d finally learned that I couldn’t solve every riddle.
I hadn’t spoken to Marc in over five years, our communications limited to vacuous holiday cards and Spartan emails. Another page of my past turning over, I was set to observe it without even a cursory bookmarking. But as I searched for a sympathy card in my cluttered home office, I stumbled across the small stuffed bear Marc had won for me at a county fair once upon a time. I wasn’t prone to superstitious fancies, but it made me nostalgic. Didn’t I owe Marc this last goodbye?
Still, I couldn’t help feeling exasperated as I booked my flight that he’d chosen this, of all times, to get himself killed.
Reunion evening, seeing Natalie again didn’t bother me as much as I’d expected. I suppose it really couldn’t have; I’d have suffered a dual aneurysm and stroke if it had.
Natalie had been my first true love affair. She’d been eighteen, I a precocious seventeen. We started out best friends as freshmen, our lockers next to each other. With my mother all but certifiable and Natalie’s greater age and world experience, she became my mentor, confidante, lover, and yes, even mother-figure.
How I adored her. I’d only recently been able to admit to myself that I’d never gotten over her, never been able to move on despite a string of girlfriends, lovers, and even a life-partner. In the end it was always the same; they couldn’t measure up to the standard Natalie had set over two decades ago.
I hesitated in the doorway. Natalie had her back to me. She’d gotten fat. Not just fat, obese. She wore a sleeveless black dress with a tiger batiked on the hem. A longer, cheetah-print underskirt completed the jungle motif. It wasn’t flattering. Her arms were exposed from wrist to shoulder, white and doughy with dimples that framed her elbows.
It was petty, the relief I felt. A part of me had expected her to be unchanged. Though she had never been willowy, her figure had been lush and ripe, supple without being flabby.
Her hair was short too, cut below her ears. I’d always liked it long — the stream of relentlessly straight chestnut-brown fanning out behind her on a pillow or as a shimmering curtain at her back. She had taken to wearing it short after graduation.
Bethany Campbell spied me lurking in the shadows.
“Kimberly! Kimberly Harris, isn’t it? I’m so glad you could make it.”
She grasped my hand, half to pump it, half to tug me into the old student lounge. “You look exactly the same! I wouldn’t believe it’s been twenty years.” She handed me a self-adhesive nametag and a blue marker.
“Thanks.” She was being kind. Despite monthly trips to the salon to re-tint gray roots, annual whitening touch-ups at the dentist, weekly yoga, aerobics, and step classes to keep the thickening waistline and slowing metabolism in check, I looked my age.
I scribbled out my name and plastered the sunny label to my suit jacket.
“We missed you at the other reunions,” Bethany continued.
“I moved out of state.”
“I’m glad you could make it this year.”
“I’m in town for a funeral.”
“Oh.” Bethany’s cheerful patter died away, which had been my intention. I liked her, but we’d never been close. Now she reminded me of a cheek-pinching aunt with her garrulous small talk and overbearing friendliness.
“I’ll let you mingle,” she said. “There’s soda and wine.”
Bethany pulled me into a fierce hug. “I’m really glad you could make it.”
It rocked me, this impulsive touch. Since Faye and I had split, I had drifted in an orbit of remote acquaintances and standoffish co-workers. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had hugged me.
Off-balance, I wasn’t ready for Natalie to turn around. The line of her nose had elongated and widened, becoming beaky where it had been distinctive. The tapered curve of her chin submerged into puffy flesh bulging under her jaw. And her eyes were huge, brown pools behind wire-rimmed glasses. I’d never been able to convince her to try contacts. In her eyes I saw the young beauty I remembered, lost in the folds and flab of a clumsily aging body.
“Kimi,” she said. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
Neither of us moved. In high school, Natalie had shown me with her easy exuberance how to take joy in casual touches: friendly hugs and linked arms. Now we couldn’t even shake hands.
“Marc was my friend too,” I said.
“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just you haven’t been to the last two reunions—”
“I live in New Jersey,” I said. “It’s not exactly a ten-minute drive like it is for you.”
“Concorde is a good place to live.” Such belligerence in those words. Like old times.
How often had she railed against Concorde and filled afternoons with dreams of escaping the sleepy town to ports bigger and wilder? “I won’t die in the same place I was born,” she’d vowed. And here she was, securely established in Concorde, while I was the one who had broken free.
But I wasn’t there to pick a fight. “Concorde is a nice town,” I said. “I’ve lived in worse.”
Maybe she didn’t want to fight either. “What have you been up to?” she asked. “Haven’t heard from you in forever.”
I shrugged. “I got my MA in Psychology and then dumped the whole thing when IBM offered me a job as a systems analyst.”
“How did that come about? I thought you were really into psych.”
“I was. Still am. People, motivation, behavior — it’s all fascinating. I got tired of the politics and games at the university. Didn’t think I could stand it for another two years to get my doctorate. Started taking some programming classes instead. The pay is good, even with the IT bust.”
She nodded. “Yeah, my degree turned out pretty useless too.”
“What was it again? Global Justice and Strategic Studies or something like that?”
“Global Peace and Strategies, yes.”
“I never understood what that curriculum was about.”
“Neither did the people I sent my resume to.” She laughed, a rueful, good-natured bray. “Basically it was Economics, Sociology, and Poli-Sci all bundled together, with a big dollop of cultural philosophy tossed in. Now I answer phones and help Luddites print their email. In the name of global peace, of course.”
I grinned. “Of course. You still living with Eliot?”
“Actually, we got married.”
Obviously, I hadn’t been invited to the celebration of their union, and I was irrationally hurt I hadn’t even received an announcement. But Natalie had called marriage a worthless institution. She hadn’t come to the commitment ceremony Faye and I’d had, but then she hadn’t approved of Faye either. Another something to let go of.
“It was a real shock getting that call from Marc’s mom,” I said. “I’m astonished she even had my number.”
“She asked me for it.” Natalie chewed her lip, a habit she had when she was feeling uncomfortable or guilty. She wouldn’t look at me either, her eyes drifting over my right shoulder towards the buffet table. I recalled a bit of trivia from psychology class: most people looked leftward when they engaged the creative hemisphere of their brain — fantasy, imagination, and lies.
What was the lie? That Natalie had asked Marc’s mother to call me? That would be like her, too proud to reach out to me and pressuring someone else to do it.
“She was pretty incoherent when we spoke,” I said. “I didn’t want to ask for details. What happened?”
“No one’s sure.”
“The police don’t have any leads or suspects or anything?”
“Not without the gun. They looked for it, but you know how the Concorde cops are.”
They’d been the butt of many teenage jokes. “I can’t believe they’re still such fuck-ups.”
“Believe it. And get this, the police came around our place and grilled Eliot and me for a couple hours.”
“You’re kidding. They thought you had something to do with Marc’s shooting?”
“Not really,” she shrugged, “But they freaked us out and got off on it. You know how it is.”
And I did. I laughed at the absurdity of it; I couldn’t help myself. “You thought they were busting you for drugs?”
She pressed her lips together, furious. “You haven’t changed a bit. You’re still a spiteful bitch.” Natalie spun away, striding to the buffet with quick, jerky steps. She filled her plate with pastries and chips.
I had no enthusiasm for the rest of the reunion. I made my rounds, spoke to old classmates, met their spouses and children, and left.
Our high school had been on the border of the university campus. A laboratory school, it shared many of the facilities and resources of the big state university, including a preponderance of cheap hotels.
My hotel room was bright and loud, the raucous sounds across the hall bleeding through the cardboard-thin walls and the lights from the parking lot seeping through the flimsy curtains. Last year’s hit movies didn’t interest me, nor the piped-in nudie videos.
I put on jeans and a loose sweater. Blue and violet, dark colors, bruise colors. They suited my mood.
My rental car grumbled to life in the chilly October air. I didn’t bother with map or destination. I couldn’t get lost in Concorde. I’d grown up here, ridden my bike through the streets and thoroughfares, hiked barefoot through backyards and golf courses, and clamored over fences and walls.
I circled the university campus, doing grid laps up Main Street, across College, down Center, and over University. The height of weekend entertainment, townies and students alike driving in circles, stopping in the middle of the road to gossip and giggle with a cavalier disregard for stoplights and traffic laws.
Phantom voices: Natalie and Eliot in the backseat, hitting off a fat joint before passing it to Marc, riding shotgun. Marc furtively waving the smoke out the window before passing the toke to me at a red light. Looping around campus in a giggly haze. And when I was too high to drive anymore, pulling into the parking lot of the Museum of Natural History.
I found myself in that barren lot, the single streetlight casting more shadows than illumination on the old brick and stone building. The heater wafted hot, dry air over me, comforting as happy memories.
This had been our favorite hangout place, away from parents, safe and clandestine. We came here to get stoned, come down, make out, but most of all, to be together. We’d called it the Center of the Universe.
I turned off the ignition and got out. There was only one way into the Center of the Universe. I slung my purse over my shoulder, better to free my hands.
The fire escape ladder was overhead, out of reach, but not the diagonal wall support. I jumped, grabbed hold, and half-shimmied, half-swung myself up. I’d done this in stiletto heels, drunk and high, and a couple of times tripping on LSD or ‘shrooms. I wasn’t young anymore, but I remembered. The riskiest section was the first part; you were the most exposed. After you reached the ladder, the shadows and the foliage protected you from random passersby, or less random campus police.
I scaled the rungs, pausing halfway at the second floor landing. Four stories in all, not a great distance unless you were climbing the outside of a building, supported only by slender metal bars.
It was so ingrained it felt like instinct: don’t look down, never look down. I was afraid of heights. Yet, up I went, guarded by the spreading oak tree, its leaves still abundant this early in autumn. I’d had to conquer my fear every time.
At the top, another moment of exposure as I slipped over the ledge. Then the walls were guardian, shield, and sanctuary.
Above me was exhilaration. I remembered this sky, the clear, crisp vista from the roof. I’d seen it lying on my back on blankets smuggled from home, watched the sunsets, the stars, the moon. I’d gotten high beneath this sky, made love beneath it, and been happy once, all under that vast openness.
On winter nights, when there was snow or frigid chill, or when we were too buzzed to climb back down, there was the attic, a little storage area with stark, wooden studs interspersed with insulation. We had to duck our heads or get tangled in cobwebs. Eliot, with his six foot two inches, once banged his skull on the slanted whitewall hard enough to bring down a rain of debris.
It was the heart of the Center of the Universe.
The metal door creaked when I pulled on it. The university hadn’t fixed the lock. Did they even know the door, this attic, existed? It opened to familiar darkness, windowless and deep.
I stepped in, letting the door close behind me as I breathed the musty air. Dust, mold, old beer, and pot smoke, just as I remembered it.
In the darkness, I only knew my eyes were open by the absence of eyelashes brushing my cheeks. It was a comfortable pressure, familiar as a tatty flannel shirt. Memories like shadow shapes grew out of the emptiness, spurred by the familiar scents.
I envisioned the catwalk that led to an alcove. Marathon Dungeons and Dragons tournaments there, the silence broken by faint strains of music from Natalie’s boombox: The Police, INXS, Depeche Mode, U2. Conjured by memory, the wailing guitar opening of “Synchronicity II” throbbed, punctuated by the clatter of plastic dice. We’d hung blankets like curtains and piled sleeping bags stolen from the storage closets and basements of our parents on the wooden floor. Milk crates swiped and furtively lugged up for tables and a few ragged throw pillows completed our nesting. It was drafty in winter and sweltering in summer, but it was ours, our Center of the Universe.
For light, we’d bought a candelabra at Big Lots and filled it with rainbow-hued candles. In retrospect, it was probably a miracle we hadn’t burned the place down. Eliot stored his bong here, enshrined in its own milk crate with various drug fixings: balloons and dispensers for nitrous, lighters, chips and gum for the inevitable munchies.
I had my first real kiss here. Marc and I, fumbling to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Marc had been my oldest friend — red-haired, freckled, and lanky. We met in third grade after I transferred in from a different district. It was an age when boys lost status in their mysterious schoolyard hierarchy if they were seen fraternizing with girls, and girls were cruel and malicious to newcomers who read books and disdained polo shirts and designer sneakers. By third grade, cliques were carved in granite with pecking orders fixed as eternity. I was a tomboy and an outsider, immediately branded a freak, destined for years of solitary elementary school hell.
Until I met Marc. He had four older sisters and was oblivious to the stigma of girl cooties. Best of all, he shared my fascination with Star Wars and Middle-Earth, spaceships and dragons.
Marc had been my best friend. We stuck together, even after I moved in sixth grade and had to transfer to another district. Then, in high school, I met Natalie and Eliot. Marc had reservations when I invited them to our Saturday gaming sessions. So I was delighted when Natalie and Marc hit it off so well. But also a bit resentful, jealous even.
Those uncomfortable feelings of insecurity had spurred me to kiss him during a stolen moment, just Marc and I, romantically lit by candlelight. I hadn’t loved him, not that way. I loved him as my closest friend, the boy I’d grown up with, but not as a boyfriend, a lover. The kiss was awkward and messy — a banging of teeth, tongues everywhere, noses in the way. After that, our friendship took on a new, uncomfortable intimacy.
We submerged in each other, lost in the novelty of it. I enjoyed the attention, but it always felt forced, unnatural. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.
Natalie was the first person I told, and she astonished me by bursting into tears. Our first friction, mended when she and Eliot began dating.
The summer of our senior year, my mother found the pot and the half-empty packet of contraceptive pills in my backpack. In the fallout, I ran away, and Natalie went with me. Solidarity. We didn’t run far. In the candlelit shadows of the Center of the Universe, giggling to cover our dismay, I realized I loved Natalie, truly loved her, the way I didn’t love Marc. I kissed her, and wondrous of wonders, she kissed me back. We made love on the tattered sleeping bags.
Marc found us that evening, both of us blinking at his flashlight, our eyes dilated from the dark when the candles burned away. Before Natalie or I could speak, he dropped the flashlight and fled.
Accusations and recriminations followed. We all made up, although it was never the same after that.
Closing my eyes, I remembered Marc’s thin smile, the way he used to hum when he didn’t know what to say. Instead of dust and mold, I smelled the Dial soap he always used. How could he be gone?
“Oh, Marc,” I whispered. “What happened to you?”
“I was waiting. I knew I could count on you.”
I blinked. Marc stood there, luminous in the darkness. He wore corduroy pants, the cuffs frayed and the knees worn threadbare. He’d always hated jeans. And he had on his favorite shirt, the one with the African weave and the flared sleeves.
Except how could I see him in the darkness, without candle or flashlight? And he was dead, gunshot-wound-to-the-head dead.
I turned away, frightened, groping for the box of matches stored under the strut beside the lintel. I forgot that over a decade had passed since this had been my home away from home.
“Kimi, don’t you want to help me?”
No matches, of course. It was an alien claustrophobia, the darkness pressing at my back. Marc waited for me to turn and confront his ghost, or admit I was going mad. Paragraphs from my Abnormal Psych. textbooks: trauma from grief and mourning, psychotic triggers.
I groped along the wall, frantic to find the doorknob. My hand hit a metal box. With a switch. I flicked it, and three dim bulbs lit, sluicing the attic with comforting incandescence.
“They installed lights while you’ve been gone.”
“Sorry if I startled you.”
My heart still lurched in my chest, but I was no longer terrified. “Eliot?”
“Natalie said you were at the reunion. I wondered if you’d end up here.”
Eliot stepped out of my memories and the shadows that lined the catwalk. He hadn’t changed as much as Natalie. His hair remained long, past his shoulders in a riot of tight curls. If it was thinning and more limp than wild, I overlooked it. He was heavier too, in his face and gut. But it was Eliot. In the reality of his presence, I convinced myself that Marc’s apparition had been my imagination, maybe the wine I’d drunk.
“You look good, Eliot. I was hoping to get a chance to catch up with you this weekend. Didn’t expect it to be here, though.”
His grin was tentative, front teeth bunched together and crooked. The acne scars on his face were stark in the harsh light. “Aside from the lights, they also paneled and painted the walls. ‘Course, our stuff is gone.”
“Who cleared it out?” When we’d splintered, I stopped going to the hangout, abandoning the dog-eared copies of my Elfquest graphic novels and my TSR Player’s Handbook with regret.
“Nat grabbed some stuff. She came up for my bong and stash, dragged down her parents’ old sleeping bag. When she left for college, I kept meaning to come back to dismantle the rest but never did. We came on her Christmas break, but the place was trashed — the candelabra smashed apart, the posters shredded. The scrapbook, you remember the one we filled with pictures of us and our writing? It was torn to bits. She thought it was you.”
“You thought I’d want to wreck it? Why?” I’d always assumed one of them had retrieved the album, at least.
“Nat wouldn’t talk about what happened between you two.”
“You could’ve asked me.”
Eliot shrugged. “Wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It was done.”
It always irritated me — in the end, infuriated me — Eliot’s passive aggression.
“It wasn’t me,” I said.
We exchanged smiles.
“Hey, you want to come back to the house? Have a beer and a toke, like old times?”
Did I? Yes, I did. But—
“Nat and I had a bit of a clash at the reunion,” I said. “Not sure if she’d welcome me.”
“It’s my home too.” That surprised me. Eliot always kowtowed to Natalie. Another exasperation, how she manipulated him and took his submission for granted. “Besides, she told me about it. I could tell she felt sort of bad.”
That was more like Eliot.
“Where are you parked?” I asked. “I’ve got a rental in the museum lot.”
“I didn’t drive. We live in the same house. I walked.”
We left through the inside of the museum. The door in the middle of the catwalk only locked going into the attic. From within, the knob turned easily, leading to an echoing stairwell. We’d propped the door open to smuggle in the larger furnishings, things we couldn’t lug up in backpacks. That door and those stairs had probably saved us from injury or other tragedy, giving us a safe alternative to scaling the outside fire escape drunk or stoned, in snow and thunderstorm.
Eliot flipped the shiny new switch as we left.
The drive was short. I’d been to their house once, a place they’d moved into after Nat returned from college. Eliot directed me to the slanted driveway.
It was as I remembered it, with its front lawn overgrown and a pair of bicycles leaning against the porch. It wanted a paint job and a good cleaning. But then, who was I to pass judgment? I hated housework, paid a set of women to vacuum and dust and had a guy come round when the grass got too long. If my Nazi homeowners association hadn’t griped about it, my place would probably look as unkempt as Eliot and Natalie’s.
The porch was raggedly screened, and spiders spun their webs among the dim light fixtures. The front door squeaked.
“Nat,” Eliot called, “guess who I found at the Center of the Universe?”
He led me past the kitchen and into the living room. I recognized the sofa from Natalie’s parents, the futon from Eliot’s old apartment. The stereo was new though, a cluster of polished black components on a rickety shelving unit. Peter Gabriel’s Passion murmured from the speakers. Candles illuminated the room in mirrored wall sconces and a bright cluster on the coffee table. The burning nib of an incense stick wafted patchouli-scented smoke to mingle with the haze of an elusive, troublesome sense of déjà vu.
Natalie had Eliot’s bong in hand, the same black cylinder with the jutting pipe bowl from high school. It even had the same Grateful Dead sticker on it, although the brilliant reds and blues were faded, muted by time and handling. She exhaled a stream of blue smoke.
“Hi, Kimi.” She handed Eliot the bong and a plastic lighter. “Have a seat, have a toke. Help yourself to anything in the ‘fridge.”
We were back to a truce. I liberated a Samuel Adams from the kitchen and snagged an extra for Eliot.
In the living room, Eliot’s cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s as he held smoke and breath. We traded bong for bottle, and I sat across from them on the futon.
I hadn’t lit up since college, another contentious topic between Natalie and me. She’d taken my abstemiousness as a personal criticism of her habit. My personal choices offending her when they differed from her own was the last in a long series of wedges between us.
A lungful of smoke seemed a small price to keep the peace.
Eliot lifted his bottle. “To Marc, happy trails wherever you are, buddy.”
We clinked bottles.
The pot made another round. I had become a lightweight. Two hits left me detached, hovering with an analytical air in the space above my body. This was why I’d stopped smoking. I hated that padding in my head, the barrier that made it hard to think. It also scoured my throat raw, despite the cooling length of bong.
“So what did the police ask you?” I heard myself say.
Eliot took another swig of beer and avoided my gaze.
Natalie capped the bowl, snuffing out the red ember to conserve leaf.
“Can’t you let it go?” she said.
“Doesn’t it bug you not knowing what happened?”
She scowled. “The night he died, we got into a fight,” she said. “About you.”
“Me? But I haven’t talked to Marc in years. We exchanged Christmas cards and stuff, but I haven’t seen him for nearly as long as—”
“As long as you haven’t seen us,” Eliot finished. He’d always had an unnerving tendency of finishing our sentences, Natalie’s and mine, especially when we were all high.
“I thought you guys stayed close,” I said.
“We did,” Natalie said. “We hung out all the time. Most evenings Marc came over and we chilled.”
The déjà vu, formless and ambiguous before, intensified, goaded alive by the alcohol and THC. The darkness, the music, the intimacy, and now the shared inebriation. This place felt like the Center of the Universe. Natalie and Eliot had remade our sanctuary. There was only one thing missing.
As though I conjured him with my thoughts, Marc materialized beside me, seated with ankles crossed. He reached for the bong and sucked up a lungful of smoke through the bubbling water.
Neither Natalie nor Eliot responded, and the pot made his apparition soothing instead of upsetting. I’d had my share of drug-induced hallucinations; one more wasn’t going to faze me, even one of Marc.
“We fought,” Marc said, “Natalie and me. I wanted her to invite you down for the reunion. Thought it was well past time to patch things up.”
“Nat didn’t want to call me, did she? And you pressed her.”
“Not me,” Eliot said, “Marc.”
I didn’t correct him.
“He really missed you,” Eliot continued. “Whenever we got together for holidays, he mentioned you.”
Marc nodded, smoke issuing from his nostrils. “Ask them if they missed you.”
I started to, but chickened out. “Do you ever wish for the old days?”
“Do you?” Nat’s tone was less languid than mine.
“I did for a long time. Then I moved on.” I was lying. “Faye, my ex, you never gave her a chance. We were good. You never saw it. I used to wish you had. She was really good for me, taught me a lot about myself, about living.” I was babbling. Another effect of the pot.
“You broke up,” Nat said. “Guess she stopped being good for you.”
The bludgeon of her voice hurt. Defensive hackles lifted, old habits. But I wasn’t seventeen anymore. Faye had been more than good for me; she’d been healthy, the healthiest relationship I’d ever had. And what she’d taught me about honesty and openness revealed the truth to my pot-addled mind. Natalie had been jealous of Faye.
“It was me that wasn’t good for her,” I said. “I criticized her all the time, couldn’t stop myself. Seemed like no matter what, she couldn’t make me happy. So I called it quits.”
Marc nodded. “It was for the best.”
“I figured she’d be better off without me.”
Natalie reached for her beer, clung to the glass. Her hands shook as she tipped it to her mouth. “I’m sorry.”
I’d never heard her apologize. In all the years we spent together — weekends, summer holidays, and sleepovers — not once had Natalie admitted fault for anything.
“What are you sorry for?” Eliot asked.
“I used to get on Kimi about everything,” she said.
I gulped some beer and discovered I’d finished the bottle. “You were right, most of the time,” I said. “It was your grilling that got me questioning and thinking. I’d be a devout Jesusfreak, probably pregnant with a dozen kids, popping antidepressants, and wondering what the hell was wrong with me if you hadn’t got me out of that rut.”
“Eliot and I went to marriage counseling, y’know. The therapist told me I had self-esteem issues.”
“We all did,” I said. “We were in high school.”
“I harp on Eliot like I did you. It made me, makes me, feel better.”
The Natalie I’d known would have given up teeth, eyes, and tongue before admitting that.
“I wish you could’ve said that a long time ago,” I said. “I wish we could go back and fix what happened.”
“At last,” Marc sighed. “I’ve been waiting for so long.”
The tangled ropes of smoke thickened, turning murky and heavy. The tendrils of pot congealed against my face. They strangled the candles, dimming the yellow of their light to brassy shadows. The ringlets of smoke transformed into soft arms wrapping me close, holding me. Years dissolved away, and the forgotten, suddenly remembered, feel of a woman’s lips pressed against my mouth. Natalie’s tongue was dry against mine, rasping in our shared cottonmouth. I giggled and she tweaked my nipple. It was too much. I burst into peals of laughter, tipping backward to flop on the pile of sleeping bags. Distantly, I knew I should’ve been troubled, but recollections of futons in living rooms became misty and vague, like a dreamscape or a remembered LSD trip.
“I love you, you ninny,” Natalie said.
“I know, I know,” I said, gasping to catch my breath. “I love you too.”
“We’ll always be together won’t we, Kimi? All of us, Eliot and Marc too. After we graduate, we’ll get a farmhouse, live off the land and off the grid.”
“I want nothing more.” The solemnity of the moment chased away the giggles. This was our dream, move away from it all, start a commune, be free and happy, and most important of all, together.
Sweaty and peaceful, we lay entwined, my head nestled on her breasts, her arm draped across my hip. Sleep tugged at my eyelids, although I knew if I surrendered to it, I would wake to Marc’s flashlight and the beginning of our estrangement. As consciousness reeled away, I wondered how I knew.
I heard Marc’s footsteps on the catwalk. The blanket-curtain parted. But it wasn’t one beam that sprang through it, but two. Marc had brought Eliot.
That wasn’t right; it wasn’t how it had happened. As the thought surfaced, it faded. Going. Gone.
I sat, clutching a fold of sleeping bag to my chest.
Eliot’s face was a mask of shock, consternation. Marc’s wasn’t. There wasn’t a trace of surprise to crease his brow or drop his jaw.
Beside me, Natalie stirred.
“Mind if we join you?” Marc’s question was somber, deadly serious.
Natalie smiled and cuddled my hip. “Take off your shoes first.”
I relaxed, releasing the breath I’d been holding. “You heard her,” I said. “Off with your shoes.”
Inhibitions were tossed aside, left with the shoes and clothing kicked outside the blanket curtain. Sometime during the day, Marc refreshed the candelabra with new candles so we might see which hand pressed against whose flesh, know who we kissed before we felt and tasted lips and tongue. Breathless and panting, we parted so Natalie could switch on her boombox.
Marc said it even as I thought it. “I wish it could always be like this.”
“Me too,” Eliot said.
“It will be,” Natalie said. “I’ll always love all of you. We should live together like I was saying to Kimi.”
“We’re growing apart,” Marc said. “You and Kimi are going to different colleges. I’m staying here for university, and Eliot—”
“I’m not even going to college,” Eliot said.
“This is the best it will ever be.”
“Don’t say that,” Natalie said. “Of course we’ll change, in good ways. How could anything come between us?”
But the mood was broken. We assembled our clothes as Eliot rolled a joint by glimmering candleshine. On an impulse, I shouldered the topmost sleeping bag. We emerged from the Center of the Universe to discover the sun had set as we loved. A slender sickle of moon gleamed, waited upon by a smattering of stars.
I flung the sleeping bag on the fire escape ledge, the best view of sky and campus skyline. We sat close but not touching, passing the smoldering joint from hand to hand.
“Why can’t we stay like this?” There was resentment and grief in Natalie’s question.
“People change,” I said with my new, mysterious wisdom.
“There is a way to stay here and now,” Marc said. He stood, his arms wide as though to embrace the night.
“Get down,” I said. “Someone’ll see you.”
“Stay with me,” Marc said. “Promise you’ll stay with me.”
Before any of us could stop him, he jumped, flinging himself into empty space. For a moment, he seemed to hover, as though unsure whether to float or drop. Gravity decided for him. His body crashed through leaves and air.
“Marc!” It was only four stories. He could still be alive. I put my hand on the fire escape ladder and made the mistake of looking. The world tipped and spun, sending me gasping to my knees.
Behind me, Natalie and Eliot rose, a hairbreadth slower to react.
“We have to call 911,” I panted. “Not too late. It can’t be.”
Natalie gazed down, unaffected by my phobia. She reached back. “Eliot?”
Eliot took her hand, their faces the same in that eerie, psychic way Eliot had. “Yes.”
“Do you love me?”
“I love you. You and Marc and Kimi.”
She held her hand out to me. “C’mon.”
The belief, the love on their faces.
I gripped her hand, hard, like I would never let go. Together, we stood on the ledge. Four stories below, Marc waited for us.
“On three?” Natalie said.
“On three,” Eliot agreed.
“This is better, isn’t it?” I said. “Better than growing apart and hating each other.”
“I could never hate you,” Natalie said.
“Yes you could.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Eliot launched himself over, dragging Natalie halfway, their hands clasped tight. In that second of sundered faith, I threw myself flat and gripped the fire escape’s support.
We straggled out, flung dangerously over the precipice; Eliot committed to the air, anchored only by Natalie’s tenuous hold. My shoulder burned, wrenched and agonized. Her hand slipped in mine.
“Don’t let go,” she pleaded.
“I never did.” I was losing my grip, sliding from the metal support.
“Eliot, can you reach a branch?” I shouted.
“It’s too far!”
Natalie screamed again. I felt them shift, a dead weight on my arm. If I let go, we would all fall. All together, forever, as Marc had wanted.
I looked into Natalie’s red and frightened face. Below her, Eliot dangled, pale and limp.
I let go.
Clinging to the strut of fire escape, I watched them fall away. Vertigo twisted the world into sickening colors and sounds. I clenched my eyes shut and clutched the metal bars.
“You didn’t come with us.” Marc sat beside me, his fingers toying with the mouth of Eliot’s bong. Although I knew Marc was the ghost, it was the black plastic that looked translucent. “I waited for you, but you never came.”
The queasy dizziness was gone, replaced with a sober calmness and a certainty granted by facets of Marc’s personality I’d come to understand only now, after his death.
“How come you wrecked the picture album?” I asked. “We made it together.”
He scowled. “It was a lie. All those promises, those happy, smiling faces.”
“Ours, you mean.”
“I erased the lies.”
He’d never gotten over his obsession either, not just with me, but with what we’d had with Natalie and Eliot.
“But you kept waiting,” I said. “And when you realized I wasn’t coming back, you shot yourself. But why did Natalie take the gun, or was it Eliot?” That was the lie she’d tried to hide, the reason Eliot wouldn’t meet my eyes. More than the pot, they hadn’t wanted the police to find the gun.
His face was intense. “I got you to come back, didn’t I?”
“Only to say goodbye.”
“Natalie and Eliot are here. We could be together. They understood when I told Eliot to take the gun away, he understood. You would come if there was a question mark. You never could resist a puzzle.”
“You can’t keep them, Marc.”
“Why? Because you want them in spite of everything, even without me?” Was that eagerness in his voice?
“No. Because I don’t want them. I don’t want them or you. And because I don’t want them, you can’t have any of us.”
I felt only pity when he melted to mist and then nothingness, the bong slipping from his fingers to spill its dirty, pungent water on the carpet.
I opened my eyes. Across from me, Natalie and Eliot blinked.
“Since Marc’s death was a suicide,” I said, “I won’t tell the cops that the gun’s at the Center of the Universe, but you’d better do something with it.”
“How’d you—?” Natalie began.
I held up my hand, and she trailed into silence. “Eliot knew about the lights and paneling they put in. I figured he or the both of you had been there recently. Besides, where else would you stash it?”
“We were falling,” Eliot said.
“I caught you. But I’m done. You can stand or fall on your own.” I left, stepping over the puddle of smoke-infused water seeping into the carpet.
After Marc’s funeral, Eliot and Natalie invited me back to their place. Eliot suggested I stay in their guest room. I declined. Instead, I went back to my hotel, packed up my belongings, and turned in for an early night. I had a flight home the next morning.
My house in New Jersey was quiet and dark when I arrived. The motion-sensitive porch light went on as I climbed the steps. I half expected to see a patina of dust and cobwebs overlaying my familiar possessions — my bookshelves, the television, the dining table. But everything sparkled, cleaning-ladies spotless, just as I’d left it mere days ago.
The number came easily. I hadn’t dialed it since the breakup, had erased it from my speed dial, but my fingers remembered.
After the third ring, Faye picked up. “Hello?” She sounded sleepy. I envisioned her hair all disheveled from her pillow.
“Kimi?” In the space of my name, she woke up. “What is it? Is something the matter?” A pause. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Nothing’s the matter. I got back from my high school reunion.”
“Oh. Uh, how was it?”
“Pretty lame. Much as I expected.”
A long silence hung between us. We both tried to end it at the same time.
I forged ahead when she faltered. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For everything. For the mess I made of our lives.”
She surprised me by laughing. “It takes two people to muck up a relationship.”
“I know.” The newfound resolve I’d found in Concorde was evaporating. “I miss you.” It came out in a rush. “I really miss you.”
“Moving out was your idea.” It wasn’t an accusation or reproof, just a flat statement.
“Look, I never stopped loving you. You know that, right? I told you that.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
She sighed, deep and long-suffering. “You want to come over for coffee or something? Have a talk?”
“I’ll be here.”
“I never stopped loving you either.” The words tumbled out, tripping over themselves in my mouth. They weren’t romantic or heartfelt, and yet they were. “You weren’t waiting for me, were you?”
“No.” I heard the smile in her voice. “But I kept hoping.”