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When I wake up I can tell that I’m on the third or fourth floor of a big house, not an entirely unfamiliar one, but one that I’ve been in two, maybe even three times before.
I can tell that I’m the first, the only one, awake. It’s not so familiar that I don’t have to look for the bathroom, so I shuffle around in the thick shag carpeting until I find it, behind a crudely painted white door that hangs ajar amidst winter sunlight. It’s a tiny attic bathroom with a sharp eave descending over the toilet so I have to hunch to stand under it and squint at the sharp light reflecting off the snow on the roof, through the diagonal glass panes of the window. It hurts so much that I lean my head against this sharp eave for five minutes, to steady myself. Trying again to look out the window, I squint so hard that I can’t tell if it’s actually snowing or just really snowy, and how much of the whiteness is just sun.
All I remember from last night is brushing my teeth in this bathroom for a full hour, molars jagged with chewed-up Doritos, and four or five other guys all huddled around too, slumped in the three-part corners where two walls meet the floor. We’d talked about the fathomless ocean of history in sentences that ranged from two to a hundred words long.
Then we must have dispersed.
Waking up on a couch with a sweatshirt wrapped around my feet and my undershirt bunched up under my head, I know better than to go poking around the house, knocking on closed doors, asking where everyone is. It must be eleven in the morning, hardly time for any of that on a winter Sunday in Senior Year. I wish I had some pajamas or a bathrobe, but I just pull on my old jeans and sweatshirt, a little damp from gin and sweat.
I seem to have this part of the attic mostly to myself. There are a few cast-off sneakers and pocketbooks strewn across the floor, but no sounds of anyone breathing. After looking at the snowy pines, whose tops are about level with the windows on this floor, I swig some mouthwash, spit it out, and climb another half flight of stairs, into what looks like a guest room or spare den.
There’s another old couch in this room, an even older one, and a dusty TV on a stand, a jumble of videotapes and a Sega Genesis in a pile under it, halfway boxed-up as if they’d been taken to a tag sale and then brought back unsold. Maybe Andrew’s little brother still uses this room sometimes, but no one’s around at the moment. In a cardboard box they have Starfox, Sonic, Super Mario 2 and Mortal Kombat II. It takes a minute to find the right TV/video setting, but eventually it all works. I play a few rounds of Mortal Kombat against the computer, lose, and turn it off.
I decide to go down to the kitchen and get a bowl of cereal.
No one wakes up as I go down the two half-floors and three full floors beneath that to the kitchen. There are bodies dotting the carpets and armchairs in greater numbers as I get closer to the living room where I guess the main party had been, even two people sleeping on top of each other on the stairs. A light in the hallway that adjoins the landing to the first floor stairs has been smashed, a delicate pile of broken glass on the floorboards underneath, and a bag that had been taped over a smoke detector has come undone on one side and so is hanging precariously by a single strip of duct tape in a way that faintly turns my stomach.
Without the sense that I’m investigating to any purpose, I pad from room to room in my bare feet, watching out for broken glass. There’s some vomit in the sink in the main bathroom next to the living room, and a bowl of potpourri spilled into the toilet, floating like rose petals in a duck pond. The shower is running and there are three pairs of sopping pants tangled on the tiled floor. I turn it off, half-thinking I’d actually like to get under the water, but traipsing out and back into the hallway instead, basically right into the kitchen. The end of one of the Lord of the Rings movies is playing on mute on the big downstairs flat screen TV.
In the kitchen, I thumb through the mail—Netflix to return, a National Geographic, an envelope from the YMCA—that’s resting lightly on the marble island around the stove. I look at the photos on the refrigerator of Andrew’s sister cranking a pottery wheel and his brother hefting a javelin with a bike helmet resting crooked on his head, and Andrew himself, maybe five years ago, doing a cannonball into a pile of leaves.
When I go to open the fridge’s heavy doors, the back door of the house opens at the exact same moment, so that the cool whoosh of the one and the jangling clank of the other bleed together into a moment that startles both me and Andrew’s mom, who’s just now walking into the house.
I turn around to face her, a quart of milk in my hands. We look at each other for a moment, and then, without thinking, I raise the milk to my nose to smell it.
“Still good?” she asks, dropping her keys on the side table by the door.
I smell it again, and then put it down on the counter. “Yup.”
She comes over to the alcove by the fridge and just stands there quietly. “There’s a lot of cars out in the driveway,” she says, after a minute.
“Some crashed up a little.”
“It was that kind of party.”
No point in lying as far as I can see. She can see as far as I can, or at least as far as the dining room past the set of glass doors, where three people are lying happily in a pile of pillow fluff.
“I’m Alex, by the way,” I say.
“I know,” she smiles, deep rings under her eyes that look like mascara bleeding into pools of exhaustion. “You were here for the Oscars last year, remember? We ordered Indian take-out. And besides, I see your dad a lot at the Y. He’s always very friendly. Hey, congratulations, he says you got into…”
I shrug and tremble a little. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited. You never know, right, you just have to send in your application and see. Congratulations to Andrew too, none too shabby that he…”
She nods. “He seems excited, that’s all that matters.”
This week we’d all heard back from our schools. The wild success of nearly everyone I knew was a resounding disappointment to all of us, one that we were just starting to feel this weekend. We’d all gotten in exactly where we wanted, and felt thus somehow cheated of the hard-earned belief that these places were in any way exclusive.
Andrew’s mom shakes me off this train of thought by saying something incomprehensible. She looks disappointed and a little proud at the obvious perplexity on my face. “That’s French,” she explains. “I just assumed that since you were going to… and all, in the fall, that you’d…”
“Yeah, I don’t speak French,” I say, and we both laugh for just under a second.
“I don’t either, really. I’ve just been taking a course to keep myself in shape.”
“I mean, I’m doing a ballet course too. Just to keep busy.”
Both of our sets of eyes are glazed and our jaws hang loosely near our chins as we speak. It’s clear that we’ve both spent Saturday night seeking a kind of pleasure that contained within it its own punishment, and so, I guess, vice versa.
“You just out running errands this morning?” I ask.
“Yeah. You know, groceries and that kind of stuff.”
“Oh. Can I help you carry them from the car?”
“The groceries and stuff.”
“I was just about to make some coffee, if you show me how to use the coffeemaker,” I say, hastily changing the subject.
“It’s okay, Mrs.…” I realize that I don’t know Andrew’s last name.
“Mrs.….” But she breaks off too. “I was going to say… but it’s changing back soon.”
“Yeah, I meet with the divorce lawyer on Tuesday morning.”
“Oh, wow, I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“Yeah it’s okay. Andrew doesn’t talk about it.”
I’m about to ask some drunk, stupid question about if she was up at a bed and breakfast in Vermont or whatever over the weekend, but I don’t.
She shows me how to make coffee, looking at the impressive array of crushed plastic gin bottles and beer cans on the counter and stovetop.
“I don’t know what to do with this house, you know, it’s not really mine, and I imagine Andrew’s father will just sell it once everything gets cleared up. I should tell him, Andrew I mean, not to trash the place until then, but I don’t really care, really.”
“I’m sure things will sort themselves out…”
I leave a belated space for her name, and she fills it with “Ellen.”
She’s wearing faded blue jeans that are almost white and a black long-sleeve shirt, tucked in with a thick black belt.
“I was thinking of having some Special K, if that’s alright.”
“Sure, help yourself to whatever’s in the cupboard.” A moment later, as I’m looking for a bowl, she blurts out, “On second thought, Alex, why don’t I make you some eggs?”
“Oh that’d be great, Ellen, thanks, I’d love that, but I don’t think I can right now. I always get this awful stomachache when I drink too much. Most Sundays I drive to the Y and force myself to dive into the pool and swim it off, but right now I just need to have some cereal and wait.”
She gives up on the offer and opens the cutlery drawer to get me a spoon instead. In so doing, she dislodges a turquoise bra that’s stuck in the corner where the drawer meets the oven. Dangling it up to the snowy light on the end of a knife, she asks, “Do you drink a lot?”
“Yeah,” I reply.
She looks like she’s about to say something but then just shrugs in a way that seems to mean either you really shouldn’t or so do I.
The coffee’s ready and I take out a carton of orange juice from the fridge and pour my bowl of Special K, about to eat it standing there, but then something occurs to me.
“Hey Ellen, I was going to take this up to that little den in the attic, if that’s okay, and just watch some TV and space out for a bit.”
“Okay, I’ll start cleaning up all this crap,” she says, looking forlornly at the colorful array of broken things.
“It’ll still be here later today,” I say, cautiously, trying not to imply anything. “You look pretty exhausted too. Want to just watch TV for a little? It can’t hurt. Then once everyone gets up…”
“Yeah, I feel awful,” is all she says.
But she pours herself a bowl of Special K and loads up our bowls and two spoons and two coffee cups and two juice glasses onto a tray, which she gives to me, and she carries the coffeepot and the carton of juice, and we make our way up the stairs, stepping over the people who are still sleeping, me still barefoot, she still in her Vermont weekend boots.
“I didn’t know we had this thing up here,” she mutters, looking at the TV setup. “Must be one of the things Jim left around and never used.”
“Someone must have brought up this Sega at some point.”
We both look blankly at the Sega, which looks blankly back at us.
Then we sit down on the couch, and she flicks the remote. Nothing happens. I get up and push the ON button, the sprinkling sound of settled static rising back to the surface of the screen.
We eat our cereal skeptically, milk dribbling down our chins, as an image struggles to emerge. The alcohol in my stomach feels like a pit of sleeping snakes, furious as the new grain pulp and coffee tumble down on top.
The TV comes to life, animated by what we soon find out is an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” We have to wait until the first commercial break to learn this, but then we know.
It turns out to be a “Dawson’s Creek” marathon, a rare Sunday morning event where they play every single episode back to back.
We lean back on the couch, our cereal nothing but a few flakes drying on the sides of the bowls, a misting of orange juice crawling down the edges of our glasses, as one episode follows another.
“You know this show?”
“I know of it. Never really watched it though.”
We find it almost impossible to follow. The colors and sounds wash over us like the light of a fluorescent aquarium, the kissing faces and front doors, the rows of lockers and holding hands. We can’t separate one from another. We bob in the sweet-smelling, stagnant water of scrawled notes and abrupt breakups and triumphant, temporary reconciliations. Kids about my age sitting on logs in the breathy woods, looking out among the trees and then over at one another, with a sigh.
At one moment, after six or seven episodes, I catch a glimpse of the sun shining through the window on the trees behind the TV. It seems to be hovering uncertainly in the sky, wavering, granting us a few extra hours but just a few. All at once, the series will be over and it’ll be a late Sunday afternoon in winter, my last in this town, her last in this house.
We watch the characters and root for them nervously, hoping that they’ll succeed, a little at a time, but never so much as to be freed of their bondage to the show, or the sweet idiocy of their youth. We don’t want to wish them disaster, but we know that the series will end if things go too well, and then we’ll be up against the brute flank of a new Monday.
There could always be one more episode, we think, like there could always be one more year between this one and the next. The divorce will never occur and I’ll be able to stay hungover and barefoot the rest of my life, never impelled to look my sober head in the eyes.
But the show will end. In fact, of course, it already has. We know for sure once the first eerie beam of evening light spills over the TV set and onto the empty coffeepot.
After the last of the final credits, a new series of events will snap into motion: sleeping bodies will stir and start to groan, they’ll start waiting in lines for showers and listlessly offering to help clean up. Then we’ll have to start negotiating the gridlock of cars in the driveway; people will exchange phone numbers, the right ones or made-up ones; the snow will start to thaw and spring will start to come, and then this summer and then next year.
And Ellen will have to look at her sullen, Ivy-bound son, and pick up his sister and little brother from wherever they are, and the four of them will have to look into the fridge and wonder what to have for dinner, as I drive home across the dark, snowy line that separates one week from the next.
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