This is draft 10 of a novel prompted by my experiences as a debater in high school. I started writing it after I made Beat, and the various drafts went on for a while.
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THE MASTER DEBATER
you had told me that I was shy, I would have denied it. I would have denied there were any
characteristics that defined or limited me.
wanted to be a genius, and not just any genius, but the greatest genius who had
ever lived. It was too late to be a
child genius like Mozart. Einstein was
in his twenties when he came up with relativity; I had plenty of time left to
do something Einstein-like. After
relativity, he spent the rest of his life working on something called the
Unified Field Theory. I planned to
finish that up for old Albert, get it done well before I turned twenty. I sent off to the Atomic Energy Commission
for pamphlets on atomic energy and carefully filed them in manila folders.
atomic power bored me; I turned to poetry to hedge my bets. There were any number of young poetic
geniuses. How hard was it to come up
with something like "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers
rolled"? I wrote poems and sent
them to "The New Yorker" and carefully filed the rejection notices.
I got to Bellaire High and discovered debate.
house was like the white spaceship in "2001" and M was like
HAL-9000. Tonight, like all nights on
board the mothership, dinner was at exactly six o'clock, white plastic place
mats at the white Formica table in the white breakfast nook. P's hairpiece was off, revealing the tan line
at the top of his forehead where his pate went pale. A black and white Zenith portable TV occupied
a fourth place mat where a sibling might have sat. We didn't talk at dinner but Walter Cronkite
my plate was brown ground cow meat topped with red Heinz tomato sauce. Every Friday was meat loaf night, every
Saturday salmon croquettes, every Sunday pot roast, every Monday tuna
casserole, every Tuesday ground beef tacos, every Thursday Hebrew Union hot
dogs stuffed with instant mashed potatoes and topped with Velveeta cheese. Then back to meat loaf ad infinitum, ad
Westmoreland commended the joint military action in the Mekong Delta as proof
that Vietnamization is working...."
it was meat loaf and the Mekong Delta in the breakfast nook.
was part of this year's national debate topic and I was always hungry for
evidence to quote, but Walter Cronkite was a newscaster, not a quotable expert,
so what was the point of listening to him?
"Can I be excused?"
haven't finished your meat loaf," M said.
not my meat loaf."
it's on your plate then it's your responsibility to eat it."
I didn't put it on my plate. You gave me
the same size portion that I always give you."
since you are the equivalent of a governing body or regulatory agency
determining the allotment of the meat loaf portion in question, I can't be held
responsible for your misallocation of resources."
of talking about your dinner, what about eating it?"
you're accusing me of wasting meat loaf that you misappropriated without my
advice or consent."
suppose it's never too early to practice for Nationals."
one," I conceded.
commercial came on the TV. See the USA in a Chevrolet.... P looked at the piece of meat loaf in
question. "Here, I'll eat the darn
thing," he said and forked the meat from my plate and plopped it on his.
is not the issue," M said.
the issue, in your own words, is food going to waste, and the food in question
is no longer going to waste. May I
please be excused from the table?"
didn't say anything, her way of saying yes to something she didn't really want
to say yes to. I went to the sink,
rinsed the granules of brown beef and red Heinz tomato sauce off my plate, put
it in the white enamel dishwasher, wiped off my plastic place mat and returned
it to its official drawer.
The sound of the CBS
Nightly News echoed and faded as I retreated past the white brick fireplace, where
no fire had ever been lit. On the mantel
were my debate trophies, precisely positioned, the brass goddesses of winged
victory and chrome-plated public speakers polished daily by M.
closed my bedroom door. Free to put on
the headphones, free to drop the phonograph needle on "Are you
Experienced?", free to listen to Jimi as loud as I liked, free to sit down
at my desk and work, and it wasn't even "work" if it was what I
wanted to do.
came in, shrouded in smoke from her Salem, and lifted the headphones off of my
head. "I've been yelling for you to
pick up the phone."
left my bedroom door open as she walked away, her white cotton house shoes
clip-clopping against her callused soles.
I closed the door and sat down at my desk before picking up the
"Hi." It was Mei Su.
that one word from her thrilled me. I
never expected her to call me, her voice asking for my voice.
wanted to say good-bye."
thought we already said good-bye when you said we shouldn't talk to each
felt like arguing about that, protesting that I hadn't been mean, but I
a great debater and you're going to have a great year."
I'd rather be a great lover.
hope you win Nationals."
I hope to win you back. "When are you leaving?"
morning at nine."
I say that I'd miss her? I didn't think
that she wanted to hear that, after what we had and had not been through, that
she had almost been my girlfriend, but not quite. It already felt like a long time ago, even as
I was speaking to her.
there?" Mei Su asked.
here. I don't know what to say."
about 'Good luck.'"
you want to get together before you go?" I recklessly asked.
too busy packing.
There must be something I could say that would sway her feelings, make
her desperate to see me, some words that I could pull out of my head to
persuade. There must be some sequence of
words in the English language that would win her heart.
not enough time to cobble together a miracle.
"Good-bye," I repeated back.
I held the dead receiver in my hand. Mei
Su had called -- why? Because she liked
me? Felt sorry for me? Felt something? I hadn't been thinking about her and now I
was, and that wasn't a good thing, not if I felt bad like this.
good-bye kisses on the phone. Not before
Mei Su went off to Yale. No good-bye
kisses ever. Only the temporary illusion
that I almost had a girlfriend and now I didn't.
I did have was college applications and brochures stacked on my desk. Fill in name, address, social security
number. Write an essay: "Why I want
to attend ____________." Each
application a lottery ticket to freedom.
Yale University application was on top.
Mei Su was going to Yale. If I
went to Yale too, then I could "accidentally" run into her -- hey, it
was a free country, why shouldn't I go to Yale?
opened up the Yale brochure. Ye Olde
Ivy. The Beautiful People, lolling on
the green on a Spring afternoon, or, on the next page, having a deeply
meaningful talk with a professor in his book-lined office. I wished I had read every one of those books. Cheering at a hockey game. I had never been to a hockey game. But what if Mei Su was at the hockey game and
I felt weird seeing her and I had to avoid her, what if that ruined Yale,
having Mei Su to worry about the whole time?
Yale was fucked. Fuck Yale.
picked up the next brochure. Wesleyan
Connecticut. Close to Yale, but not too
close. More Beautiful People, sledding
down a hill in winter, playing Frisbee on the same hill in Spring. A guy pouring chemicals into a beaker, his
hair longer than P would ever let me grow mine. I could be that guy. I could be smart. I could have long hair. I could have a girlfriend, just like that
girl in cut-offs on the quad. And I
could drop Mei Su a line, invite her up to visit me and my girlfriend, no big
deal. This time next year it could be me
in that picture, I could finally be me, I could finally be free.
debate shack was a thousand light years from "2001", a thousand light
years from home. It was beige metal,
corrugated and rusty, and M had never set foot inside.
of winning teams posing with trophies hung on the walls. I was in three of the photos with my partner,
Steve. By the end of the debate season,
the pictures of me would be taken down and I would be banished from the debate
shack, persona non gratis, my name
invoked by other debaters as a cautionary tale for the shame I had brought upon
myself and the Bellaire debate squad.
But today I merely tortured myself staring at the photograph of Mei Su.
Velikow, a Novice Boy, five feet tall, albino pale, hovered nearby. "There are only two debaters in three
photographs. If you get one more photo
on the wall, then you'll be the only one in four. Do you need help carrying your briefcase or
thanks, Velikow. Good luck today."
debate squad was carpooling to the first debate tournament of the year. As I carried my briefcase and quote drawers
out the door, I promised myself not to mope.
Mei Su wasn't moping.
Benjamin," Steffi said. With Mei Su
gone, Steffi was the top Senior Girl Debater.
been looking for you. Do you have any
evidence about Communist insurgency declining?"
got this quote from Arthur Schlesinger.
Out of one hundred and forty-nine insurgencies in the past eight years,
only fifty-eight involve the Communists.
Something like that."
would really help our affirmative
case. If I could borrow it for just a
sec and make a copy, that would be a life saver."
reluctantly sat down on the shack's steps and opened my affirmative quote
drawer. Steffi crouched close beside me
and I could feel her body heat. She
touched the plastic divider tabs. "100.6
-- Communist Insurgency Pro? 100.7 --
Communist Insurgency Con? What are those
own Dewey Decimal System." I
quickly plucked the desired quote from the thousand 4 X 6 cards in the
have to explain it to me some time.
Thanks for the loan of the quote."
time." Except on a tournament
day. I hated loaning evidence when I
might need it, and I just had.
caught up with my partner, Steve, at the car.
He wore glasses and suit and tie and when I looked at him it was like I
was looking at myself.
wanted to borrow a quote card."
her do her own research."
we'll need to borrow evidence from her and David some time."
"Doubtful. It's my research too. You don't just give it away."
Steve and I were loading our briefcases and quote drawers into the trunk of his
mom's black Electra, Diane, a Junior Girl, suddenly appeared. Her hair was braided into a ponytail and she
clutched a metal quote drawer to her chest.
What a bright blue dress, I thought, and wondered why I even noticed
that. She gave me this accusing look,
that I was weird for staring at her breast, but I wasn't, I was staring at the
part of the blue dress that happened to cover
her breast, it was just an accident, but how could I explain that to her
without it sounding extremely complicated, not to mention unbelievable?
we ride with you?" Diane asked. Her
debate partner, Randi, stood close behind her.
"Sure." I didn't know what else to say that wouldn't
sound stupid. It was too late to back up
and clarify the whole matter of what had been a perfectly innocent,
unpremeditated "stare." But it
was happening again. Now I stared at the
sheer, iridescent lip gloss on her lips.
Should I say something like: Nice
lip gloss? No moping, I'd promised
myself, and no staring. No
distractions. So no comment as I silently
stood and watched Diane and Randi put their briefcases in the trunk. Silence was safer. Then I noticed there was sunlight
highlighting Diane's brown hair. The
first debate round was in an hour; this was no time to be noticing sunlight or
highlights or hair.
is our first tournament as a team," Randi said.
nervous," Diane said.
was I. Should I say I am too?
"Well...." Each word I
uttered to Diane felt like it came out of my mouth wrong. Diane was a girl and girls made me nervous,
made me want to say the right thing. I
wanted to say something, anything,
but I was locked in a private frenzy of searching for the perfect -- or just
appropriate, non-embarrassing -- word. "...don't be...."
bet you're going to win," Diane said. I heard you in the finals of Dallas Jesuit
last year. You were great."
that was a squeaker, a three-two decision."
crushed that dufus in cross-ex. You made
him look like an idiot."
did she remember something like that?
What did she want from me? Some
help with evidence? She was beautiful
and I wasn't and it was unfathomable that she would just want to talk me. I wanted to get away from her so that I could
take a moment to try and fathom that, to try and fathom her.
did you do that?" she persisted.
was asking the questions and you made him look like he didn't know the
you can tell what an opponent is after, what answers they want and they get so
focused on that that they forget what the judge or anyone else is thinking,
they get blind to the whole situation. I
mean, even if it's a yes or no question you're being asked, you can ask back a
clarifying question, and before they know it, even though it's their cross-ex,
you've taken control, you're asking back your own questions...." She was smiling at me while I was going on
and on with my dumb theories about cross-examination debate and I belatedly
realized how wound-up I had gotten answering her question. It was pathetic how I was prattling about
such minutiae; I got embarrassed and quiet.
wondered what she really meant but was afraid to look her in the eye. "Well...."
because I didn't look at her, then I had to wonder even more.
nodded an untroubled hello to the girls and we got into the Electra and drove
away. It didn't seem to bother him that
Diane and Randi were in the back seat; as far as I could tell Steve never
thought about girls.
typed up the Reischauer quotes, and that McNamara stuff about NATO. They're in my affirmative drawer if you need
it," Steve said.
about the Congo?"
got some general stuff about Africa, pro, con whatever we need. Name a country, I've got a quote, pro or
how do you do it?" Diane piped in.
to," Steve said.
Steve and I talked I tried to eavesdrop on Diane and Randi, to glean some
knowledge of the secret workings of girls.
I wished Steve would quiet down so I could decode their whispers but he
yakked about insurgency and military infrastructure all the way to Lamar High
parking lot was crowded with boxy yellow and black school buses from local
schools and sleek gray Scenicruisers from distant ones. Many arms lugged many briefcases into the auditorium. Steve popped the trunk open. Diane brushed against me as she picked up her
quote box. I felt tingly standing near
luck," she said to me.
luck," I repeated back.
walked as a loose foursome quickly toward the ivy-covered school auditorium
where the room assignments were posted.
Our trip together was over.
the lobby, voices boomed off the yellow tile walls, a hundred public speakers,
in public, speaking at once, all those words from all those mouths. When I looked back Diane and Randi were
gone. I put down my briefcase and looked
around at the other debaters -- the competition.
and I scanned the assignment posters, handwritten in black Marks-a-Lot and
Scotch-taped to the tiles.
us, 23-A. Affirmative against
hurried out of the auditorium. The
stairwell smelled of Lysol; we climbed two steps at a time. Grimly, quickly, huffing, puffing, we
fast-walked down the deserted hallway and into the assigned room. I turned on the lights and surveyed the field
of battle. The chalkboard had faded from
black to gray and the room smelled of chalk dust and fresh floor wax.
strategy was to get to the room first and set up our briefcases and quote drawers,
the encampment from which we would sally forth to make our speeches.
went to the blackboard and with great care wrote our names, team number, and
the national debate topic:
that Congress should prohibit Unilateral Military Intervention by the United
States in foreign countries."
Military Intervention, UMI, was this year's national topic, and I would be for
it and against it, affirmative and negative, hundreds of times. Debating UMI would be the center of my life. Because the chalk lettering of the debate
topic and our team information matched, we now had the home field
walked the negative team, Ralph and Freddie from Memorial High. The protocol was to act friendly. Ralph had a sweaty palm and a limp handshake,
Freddie a slightly drier palm and a firmer grip and thought he was hot stuff in
his hounds-tooth jacket.
judge arrived after the let's shake hands
bit. The trick was sizing him up without
seeming to. He was bald and old and
wearing a gray flannel suit, the kind of guy you'd never notice except now,
when what he thought mattered more than anything. He said his hellos, very stiff upper lip, and
began tapping his foot, impatient for the Memorial team to get set up. I was nervous -- Memorial had a strong squad,
it was the first debate of the year, and our affirmative case had not been
words began. Steve's words first, as the
first affirmative, presenting our case for prohibiting Unilateral Military
Freddie's words, as the first negative, attacking our words. "...Dean Rusk noted how ineffectual the
United Nations has been in ending warfare...."
Rusk is pro-U.N., not con," Steve whispered urgently in
my ear. His fingers tickled through his
quote cards and pulled exactly the Dean Rusk quote I would need for my speech.
Freddie finished his speech I walked to the front of the classroom to
cross-examine him. Freddie buttoned his
sport coat. The judge picked at his
fingernail without looking up. Coach
Johnson slipped quietly into the back of the room, a lock of wavy brown hair
falling across his eyes, a lit Parliament clamped between his lips. Johnson was our new coach, and this would be
the first time he would hear me debate.
That added pressure.
took a step back, to upstage Freddie, and force him to look back at me to
answer. I expected him to make a
counter-move, to step back to stay side-by-side with me, but he didn't. Was he playing some subtle mind game with
you say that cooperation is a good thing?" I asked.
do you mean?"
is it better to be cooperative than to be uncooperative?"
such as someone being uncooperative in cross examination?"
judge laughed. Freddie tugged at the
sleeves of his hounds-tooth check jacket.
I suppose that cooperation can be good."
NATO based on cooperation?"
has NATO been effective?"
depends how you define effective."
countries in Europe have gone Communist since 1947?"
none seem like the right number?"
perhaps the cooperative efforts of
NATO have been effective?"
about Vietnam?" Freddie asked.
can ask me questions when it's your turn."
judge nodded, Johnson scribbled, Freddie fidgeted with a brass-plated coat
button: I saw all this as I continued to ask Freddie questions, the details
flowed in as words flowed out, one current crossing the other. I had practiced and trained and it all
happened so smoothly that I could speak fluently without thinking about
speaking. It was the best feeling in the
world, standing inside and outside of myself at the same time, watching and
being at the same time.
the cross-examination ended, I went back to my seat for my quote cards, then
returned to the podium.
negative team quoted former Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the effect that the
United Nations is ineffectual. However,
in his book 'The Quest for Peace,' 1965, Mr. Rusk wrote, 'In eighteen brief
years, the United Nations has helped to deter or terminate warfare in Iran and
Greece, in Kashmir and Korea, in the Congo and the Caribbean, and twice in the
Middle East and in the western Pacific.'
the negative team accidentally added a "not" to the Dean Rusk's
quotation they cited -- or Dean Rusk has changed his mind, in which case his
opinions are changeable and unreliable.
In either case, the negative argument is unsubstantiated and...."
I continued my speech, Coach Johnson scribbled.
Was I somehow failing?
the round was over, Steve went to find a bathroom and I went back to the
auditorium. In the lobby, Coach
Johnson's back was to me as he talked to Coach Henderson. Henderson had been the Bellaire High debate
coach my first two years, but last May he had left Bellaire to coach debate at
the University of Houston. Coach
Henderson had shot the black-and-white photographs of winning teams clutching
their trophies that decorated the walls of the debate shack.
the best I've ever heard," Coach Johnson said.
"Yep. Benjamin's going to win Nationals this
year," Coach Henderson said, and blew a puff of smoke from his Silva Thin
up at the ceiling. Then he saw me and
smiled. "Did you just feel your
ears burn, Benjamin? How are you?"
shook hands. "Just fine, sir."
look suitably pale."
spending the summer in the library."
It made me nervous to talk to them after overhearing them talking about
me; I started to leave.
so fast," Coach Johnson said.
"There's a very good chance you lost that round.
look so shocked."
tried to not look shocked.
cooperation and the U.N. and peace-keeping forces might be well and good -- but
not in Texas. If there's one thing that
any God-fearing Texan is sure of -- and let's assume that all of our judges are
God-fearing -- it's that the Communist threat is very real and very
terrible. And you've got to answer that
fear with whatever affirmative case you make."
about our NATO argument? That
you were eighteen I'd take you to the bar down the street and we'd poll the
patrons if they expect the French and the Germans to stop Brezhnev. Hell, let's go into the judges' room and see
who wants to put their lives in the hands of Willi Brandt and Charles
like a fool, seduced by esoteric foreign policy arguments. Fear was the essence of everything. Fear of the Communists. Fear of losing Vietnam. Fear of losing debates. Fear was truth and fear would set me
the United Nations, don't over-play NATO.
Richard Nixon is President, not Eugene McCarthy," Johnson said.
there's some way that prohibiting Unilateral Military Intervention would
strengthen our fight against Moscow.
Like, what if we're losing the nuclear arms race because of all the
money we have to put into conventional warfare?"
told you he was a quick study," Coach Henderson said.
threat, Commie threat, Commie threat," Coach Johnson chanted.
I continued into the auditorium There's a
very good chance you lost and Commie
threat echoed in my head, even as Benjamin's
going to win Nationals counter-echoed.
If Coach Henderson said it, then it might be so; maybe I really could go
all the way. It scared me to think I
would now disappoint him. There was so
much I didn't know -- for example, to cite a most recent case, that I should be
arguing Commie threat and not that the U.N. was groovy. As soon as Steve got back from the bathroom I
would fill him in on Commie threat,
Commie threat, Commie threat.
auditorium was where debaters hung out after the debate rounds, in Bedouin
villages of briefcases and quote boxes.
Still buzzed from overhearing the coaches talk about me, expecting great
things from me, I took my place with
the Bellaire High debate tribe.
your quote card," Steffi said, and handed it back to me, crumpled from two
hours in her possession. Perhaps she had
pressed the quote card fervently to her breast.
If that quote card could talk.
I didn't get it back to you before the round.
Hope you didn't need it."
"No...." It was an unpardonable breach, not having
that quote card during our first debate.
saved us. Your research is so great. We should go to
the library together sometime," she said and hurried off.
heard you lost," David said, breezing past. He was Steffi's debate partner. He'd pinned a peace button to his lapel now
that the first round was over and he could flaunt his beliefs without
consequences. I admired his sneaky
grapevine. That's what you get for being
not a peacenik."
flashed me the peace sign, tossed down his briefcase, and ambled toward the
stage, where the drama crowd had congregated.
They were noisy and didn't wear ties and lacked discipline and we
debaters kept our distance. Except for
David, who made a beeline for Shayne, the queen of Bellarama, the Bellaire High
drama club. Her frizzy black hair was
tied into twin ponytails as wiry as Brillo pads. She grabbed hold of David and started to
saw me staring. "You need to have
more fun, Benjamin."
I really mean okay."
flashed me the peace sign with both hands, just like Tricky Dick, but she was
missing the first two joints of her ring and middle finger on her right hand so
it was a maimed peace sign. I shot back
a whole-fingered version of same.
Diane's mint blue dress jumped out at me.
She hadn't asked me for quote cards and she might even say yes if I
asked her out for pizza, if the offer was phrased carefully, casually, like it
was no big deal if she said no. But I
needed some reason to walk over to her, I needed something to say that sounded
better than hello.
Guess what, Coach Johnson thinks we lost the
first round? No.
Remember what we were talking about, back
before we got in the car? No.
How did your first debate go? Yes.
Ask her a question she would most likely gladly answer. I walked toward her.
I was five steps behind Eddie Zalta. My
moment of framing the perfect opening question had cost me dearly, had lost me
the opportunity, because Zalta, the debate squad's ladies' man, swooped in
front of me and gallantly took Diane's quote box from her. No one knew that I had tried, that I was
walking boldly toward Diane when the disaster of Zalta's Unilateral Male
Intervention occurred. Zalta threat, Zalta threat, Zalta threat.
inched over to the doorway and watched as Zalta led Diane out to his dad's
white Coupe de Ville, shamelessly combing his hair while he chatted her
up. He opened the massive passenger
door for her, and after she scooted inside, softly closed it. The white Cadillac looked blue under the
darkening twilight sky. I saw him smirk;
I heard the Cadillac purr to life, then glide past the yellow school buses and
out of the parking lot, out into the night.
Why did I feel so lonely standing in that doorway? Why couldn't Zalta feel lonely?
vowed not to worry about who drove off with who in what white Cadillac, or
worry about what they did or didn't do after driving off. After all, it was my mind. I could tell it what to think. But it was only a vow, easy to make, hard to
keep. I turned away from the dark
the auditorium it was bright and loud and swimming with voices. I opened my mouth and became one of them.
The phone rang and M yelled that it was for
and I had joked around at tournaments last year, and we'd played charades on
the bus back from Dallas Jesuit, but I was surprised that she had called out of
the blue on a Sunday night. I stared at
the black and white keys of my Smith-Corona typewriter, as if I could conjure
those letters into words to say into the telephone to her.
to have fun."
to go out?"
she mean a date? Was she asking me out on a date?
come pick you up."
not a date. "We?"
your questions will be answered. We'll
be right over." She hung up before
I could find our what was up.
was in the laundry room. A blur of
whites was spinning in the dryer and the air smelled of hot metal and lint.
was Shayne. We're going to go out."
needed M's permission, and permission was only granted for a reason.
need to go do some work for the next tournament."
where?" she asked as she sorted the darks from the lights.
not a debater."
Interp is a competitive event."
said nothing as she measured a cup of Ivory Snow, clicked the dial with an
engineer's precision and started the wash cycle; without missing a beat, she
started polishing the top of the white Maytag washing machine.
gurgled and sloshed as the wash cycle started and I had to raise my voice. "Shayne's in Magnet English with
me. She's a good student."
awfully last minute. I don't know."
not something you plan a month in advance." M said nothing. "I'm a senior, for chrissakes."
Jewish. Chrissakes isn't swearing."
be the judge of that."
folded her arms. I folded my arms. She neatly folded her cleaning towel. "Okay.
But I want you home by nine o'clock."
and that's final."
had survived her cross-ex with my affirmative case intact.
outside, the air was cold and my khaki wind breaker was thin but I didn't dare
go back inside for a heavier coat; M's fickle permission might be revoked. A couple of stars twinkled in the Space City
sky; it didn't take very long to count them.
After that I sat on the cold gray curb and tried to think of something
else to count, but before I could, David drove up in his dad's blue Camaro,
with Shayne in the bucket seat beside him.
David was the we. He flashed me the peace sign. "Greetings, peacenik."
my fellow American," I replied.
flashed me her missing-finger peace sign.
Tonight she was a rainbow: lime blouse, Dreamsicle-orange stretch pants,
crushed coral lipstick. David opened the
low-slung car door and slouched forward, and I saw Steve in the back seat. He didn't flash the peace sign. I had to angle my legs to wedge into the
cramped space beside Steve, and then we were off.
at home yakking on her Princess phone."
what are we doing?" I asked as we
"Yeah, what are we
doing?" Steve asked, as puzzled as I was.
cracked Shayne and David up.
got a surprise," Shayne said.
you ever been experienced?" David asked and held up a hand-rolled
let peer pressure influence you," Shayne said.
was very excited; I suspected other people of doing it, the longhairs at
school. Marijuana was like sex,
something that happened to other people, but never to me. Seeing that crinkly hand-rolled cigarette in
David's hand, both ends twisted to a point, I was thrilled that something
forbidden might finally happen. There
was no question of saying no. But I saw
Steve biting his lip, looking the opposite of excited.
of marijuana is a felony," Steve said.
if you get caught," Shayne said.
an open mind," David said.
about brain damage?" Steve asked.
Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste."
With the glowing orange tip of the car lighter, David set fire to the
crinkled white rolling paper; the smoke smelled sickeningly sweet as it curled
toward the padded blue car roof.
the smoke in," David managed to squeak as he did exactly that, and passed
the joint back to Shayne, who took a long drag on Puff the Magic Dragon and
passed it back to me, the rolling paper stained with her crushed coral
her lips to mine I thought as I inhaled deeply.
And coughed violently, which amused David and Shayne to no end. I passed the joint to Steve. He just stared at it.
let it go out," Shayne said in a raspy voice, trying to hold the smoke in
while she talked.
frowned and took a puff.
felt like Easy Rider. My throat was
still raw when the joint came back to me, but I didn't draw in quite so much
smoke and managed to hold it in this time.
we smoked David cruised the streets of Meyerland and Braes Bayou. I thought I felt something odd, but I
couldn't be sure. In fact I wasn't sure
what I should feel, even though I had read Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of
Perception," but that book was about magic mushrooms.
anything strange, Benjamin?" Shayne asked and I saw exactly where the
crushed coral lipstick was now missing from her lips.
maybe means maybe," I countered.
Benjamin is stoned?"
"Maybe. Maybe Benjamin gets more argumentative when
he gets stoned," David said and pushed in a tape of "The Doors"
into the eight-track player and cranked up the volume of "Light My
Fire." "You never know about
not a peacenik."
about you, Steve?"
supposed to be weird."
was jealous that Steve was stoned and I wasn't, that there was something wrong
with me, that I was behind, that I would have to work extra hard to get
We smoked the first joint down to where
it was burning our fingers when we passed it around. David immediately lit another one. I silently agreed with Steve about the felony
thing -- I was paranoid about getting busted by the HPD, cruising around like
this, the windows rolled up, the Camaro thick with sweet marijuana smoke.
long have you been doing this?"
July," David said.
"July?" I felt left out. It was September -- I was three months behind
-- I needed to catch up. "Why didn't
you tell me?"
telling you now."
were so far ahead of me. I wanted to be
stoned, I wanted to be the best at getting stoned.
the music began sounding very intense, and not just loud, more than loud,
better than loud. I didn't have to think
about whether or not I felt strange because everything was strange and Jim
Morrison was singing people are strange
when you're a stranger which was just perfect. Perfectly strange. And then Shayne turned around in her
chrome-rimmed bucket seat and smiled strangely at me.
fucked up. No maybe about it."
smiled back at her -- shyly, gladly -- like we were sharing a secret.
think, therefore I am...stoned."
dope logic. Bullshit, preppie,"
Bullshit, preppie was a dumb line
straight out of "Love Story."
And David knew that I knew that.
And I knew that David knew. A
room full of laughing mirrors.
exhaled a lung full of smoke against the rear window. "Dig the windows."
mean The Doors." Shayne said..
the windows -- lucky windows -- they're so stoned
from all the smoke."
"This......is......weird......" Was I imagining those gaps between his words,
or were they really there?
the music have to be so loud?" he asked.
had been stoned for how long?
Forever? But Jim Morrison was
still singing "When You're Strange."
Stoned-time was infinitely stranger than straight-time. Which got me to thinking about time in
general. And my thing -- mine -- about trying to understand time. I remembered eighth grade, when I took the
bus downtown to the Main Library and looked up every reference to time I could
find, but the books were either about clocks or physics gobbly-gook that didn't
tell you what time was, really was.
Amazing, that time was something that no one knew anything about. I was thinking this and listening to the
music and realizing how pretty Shayne was all at once, each single thought
completely occupied my consciousness until that next, all-consuming thought
pushed the old thought aside.
this while David drove us downtown to Love Street Light Circus. It was an incredible adventure, just parking
the car and going inside.
you have a bad trip on grass?" Steve asked.
trip on acid, not grass," David said
called a 'bad acid trip,'" I added.
instant expert," Shayne anointed.
bad grass trip is a definitional impossibility," I amended.
"This......feels......too......weird......" Steve looked paranoid, or I felt paranoid looking
at him, somehow there was paranoia somewhere between him and me, but this was
too much fun for paranoia, couldn't Steve see that?
the club was long and low-ceilinged with everyone sitting on the floor, and a
San Francisco-style light show, blobs of emerald green and ruby red and diamond
blue color oozing over the band as it played a long version of
"Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida," the music so loud that the bass guitar made the
wood-plank floor throb. Terrible and
great mixed up, inseparable. Was it
obvious to everyone that I was stoned?
down cross-legged on the floor; we were the youngest guys there. Wanted to scream out "I'm
stoned!" Everyone should be
stoned. Maybe everyone was stoned. Looked over at Shayne and she looked really good -- better than she had ever looked. Saw past -- through -- beyond her wiry black
hair: she was flat-out pretty. Looked
down and saw David and Shayne holding hands -- wished I had thought of that
before David. Maybe I could hold
Shayne's hand too. Then it hit me, David
and Shayne were boyfriend/girlfriend -- and how long had they been
boyfriend/girlfriend? And sitting on the
floor right in front of me was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a
purple Paisley blouse and vinyl boots -- so pretty -- why couldn't I just kiss
her? What was it about society's
hang-ups and my hang-ups that kept me from kissing that beautiful girl? Now I knew, really knew, why Dylan had sung But I would not feel so all alone, everybody
must get stoned.... Forgot all about
Steve -- until I remembered -- and there he was, sitting on the other side of
me, head in hands, out of it, so far into his head that he was in another
know what it's like," he said.
know what it's like!"
then -- instantly? -- we were back in the blue Camaro -- driving downtown and
there was the Main Library -- I had been thinking about the library -- when? --
and there it was -- there was a clock on the library -- right, I had been
thinking about the time I had gone to the library to research time, back in the
days when I wanted to be the next Einstein, way back before debate -- wanted to
tell David and Shayne and Steve all about this but there was too much to tell,
and we were already past the library before I could speak. David lit another joint -- passed it back --
I inhaled deeply without coughing -- "Get Back" on the radio --
hearing it deep and glorious.
Gods driving through the dark new blue sparkling city. Traded in the old black and white set for the
Wonderful World of Color. Shayne slanted
the rearview mirror her way and put on a fresh coat of crushed coral lipstick.
likes dope," Shayne said.
thinks that you're so straight because you're such a fanatic about debate."
about speaking, but somewhere between my brain and my tongue it didn't happen,
not in the usual way -- no word came out and no one but me seemed to notice.
twisted around in the bucket seat -- held my face in her hands, stared into my
eyes. "You are a maniac."
am a maniac," I concurred.
loves dope," Shayne let go of my
face and -- blink -- her face was resting on David's shoulder.
Steve like dope?" she asked.
looked at Shayne as if seeing her for the first time. "I know what it's like to be dead."
know what it's like to be dead."
...get back, get back to
where you once belonged....
so soon, too soon, we were back in Meyerland, curving along Braes Bayou, four
Bayou Jews in a blue canoe, and then it hit me that David was driving me back
to Paisley Street. Steve's seat was
empty. What had happened in the gap
between the last then that I remembered and now?
knows what it's like to be dead."
pulled up to the curb that I had sat on earlier tonight, a lifetime ago; he
shook black Sen-Sen out of a box and handed a couple to me. They tasted terrible, like evil
licorice. He heated up the car lighter,
pulled out a little tin box decorated with a blurry Taj Mahal and dumped some
sandalwood incense on the glowing orange lighter tip. The keening smoke made my eyes water. "Why?"
hide the smell."
incense smells too."
Home. Too soon I was home. The last place in the world that I wanted to
go was back into the white brick mothership, a scary white tonight. "What time is it?"
till eleven," David said.
M was awake, she would kill me for staying out too late.
was trying to think of a reason to stay with David and Shayne -- I was trying
to think of an excuse -- I was trying to think.
opened the door, slumped over the steering wheel, and pushed his bucket seat
forward. I grabbed onto the chrome seat
edge, cold to the touch, and hoisted myself out of the cramped back seat. "Get Back" thumped loudly now on
Paisley Street. Thumped toward M, I
imagined, inside smoking a Salem and clucking her tongue at every guitar lick.
"Wait." What to say to keep them here? What case to make?
you look so wasted," Shayne
your freak flag fly, doctor," David said and closed the car door. He had the Camaro and Shayne and music and
dope. He hit the gas and was gone.
in my ears -- from all the loud music?
Or the cratering of the canyons of my mind?
porch light was on. Unblinking. Didn't want to move. But did.
my way back into the house.
the swoosh of the central air conditioning, hum of the white Frigidaire -- all
those stray spaceship sounds. My Keds
squeaked on the white terrazzo -- took off shoes -- glided on white tennis
socks. Luckily, no M.
hungry, quietly got a spoon out of silverware drawer, opened freezer, took out
a half-gallon carton of Bluebelle Supreme Vanilla. Stood in cold light of freezer, dug spoon
into hard ice cream, felt the amazing freezing absolute sweetness of ice
cream. Delirious with joy. All danger forgotten.
have you been?" M asked, as scary as the Bride of Frankenstein in white
quilted polyester robe and aluminum curlers.
An explosion of light as M flipped the light switch on.
Heart leaped into throat, choked on ice cream. Had no plausible answer for anything.
David and Shayne and Steve."
Well...well...risk a familiar lie? "The debate shack."
how long have you been eating ice cream like that?"
Well.... "Just for a minute."
years? Not months?"
Well.... Had violated a basic Paisley
food taboo, eating directly from a carton.
Had violated a good housekeeping taboo too, keeping the freezer open,
causing dreaded frost to form. Fumbled
to put the carton of ice cream away, but fingers wouldn't work right; fingers
were too stoned.
you having trouble answering me?" M persisted.
"No. I'm sorry." Ice cream carton closed. Freezer door closed.
you forgetting something?"
said I was sorry."
put her Salem in her mouth and bustled me aside -- the ice cream carton sat
melting on the counter.
put the carton in the freezer. Then
turned coldly to face me and blew cool gray menthol smoke at the ceiling. "Have you been drinking?"
"No. I'm just tired." M wanted questions answered: where I had
been, what I done, list my alibis, etcetera.
Being stoned was now the worst
feeling, the polar opposite of fun.
Retreated. A good night kiss was
expected. But then M would smell my
breath and wasn't Sen-Sen more suspicious than what it hid?
are you going, Benjamin?"
the bathroom." The only excuse for
privacy that was unassailable.
-- instantly? -- stared disbelievingly at my face in the bathroom mirror. So odd
to be seeing me. Certainly there must be something I
understood. Safe for the moment in
here. But there would be more questions
to answer in the morning. Needed better
answers next time.
seemed weird: the bowl of seashell soap (only for guests), the embroidered
linen towels (also for ghostly guests, also verboten).
mirror on the wall: And people just get
uglier and I have no sense of time....
Could I safely cross the hallway?
Had I waited long enough? Or too
long? Couldn't tell.
end to the adventure, closed my bedroom door behind me.
down on top of the white bedspread and watched the ceiling breath and buckle
and bow. The ceiling like a white,
swelling sea. Sea of dreams. Drifting.
Felt myself drifting to sleep.
I saw Shayne the next day in Magnet English, I was glad and embarrassed. Glad to see her, embarrassed that I had acted
like a stoned fool last night.
English was for students who were "falling short of their academic
potential" and Shayne and I, without planning or premeditation, had both
fallen into that category. Mrs. Wiley
was the High Priestess of Magnet English.
Her dress was short, just shy of mini, and her black hair was short,
too, a coy pageboy.
dead brain cells?" Shayne asked.
Huh, I wondered.
the drug abuse."
Thousands dead. Millions."
you're too fried to know you're fried.
What's your IQ?"
supposed to have high IQs to be in this class."
were halfway through an allotted ten minutes of silent reading and
reflection. I took another stab at the
assigned reading, but I wasn't in the mood for descriptions of Dublin.
Shayne whispered in my ear, Juicy Fruit on her breath.
you going to do it or what?"
what our IQ's are."
Wiley lowered a well-thumbed copy of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man" and shot a menacing look my way.
averted my eyes into my less well-thumbed copy of same, only to see a note
slide into view. Are you AFRAID to ask?
the silence dragged on, another note appeared.
questions?" Mrs. Wiley finally asked.
looked at Shayne. She looked at me. I raised my hand and was duly called on.
do you ask?"
you said we had to be "gifted but under-motivated" to be in this
you tell us how gifted?"
not germane to the discussion at hand."
is writing about what a genius he is.
Isn't it germane to consider that same issue in relation to the class in
which we are studying Joyce's book?"
IQ is confidential information."
mean we can't even know our own IQ's?
You said the theme of this book was self-knowledge."
please get back to discussing James Joyce."
he have a high IQ?"
laughed. Mrs. Wiley didn't.
were discussing the symbolism of the beach where Joyce has his final
note was passed my way. Mr.
high IQ -- want to get high?
to my boudoir after school.
Boudoir, now there was an exciting
on my bedroom window -- purple curtains.
curtains = purple haze? Couldn't wait for my date with purple
plucked a grape. Unlike M, Steve's
mother didn't care about naked untidy grape twigs. At Steve's house I could work on debate, eat
great snacks, and not have to endure M's hegemony.
did you think about last night?" Steve asked.
actually liked it? I hated that I couldn't think what I wanted
to think. It was like I wasn't me any longer."
was exactly what I had liked. And Steve
phrased it so concisely. "Maybe we
should try pot again."
thanks. Once was more than enough."
...Lucky windows, they're so stoned from all
the smoke.... Hoped Steve didn't
remember that particular quote.
really liked it?"
of, I mean, it was different."
isn't necessarily good."
at least it's over."
pushed a quote card my way. "Robert
McNamara, on the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the importance of nuclear
deterrence, as it relates to the Berlin Wall.
What do you think?"
did I think? It was a great quote, Steve
was always finding great quotes, but there were only so many minutes before I
had to be home for dinner. I imagined a
brave new world waiting for me in Shayne's boudoir.
stuff." My head felt hollow and I
knew just how I wanted to fill that hollowness up. How soon could I discreetly leave?
still got this horrible taste in my mouth."
some more Dr. Pepper."
sipped our Dr. Peppers in silence.
you think David's a drug addict?"
think lots of people smoke pot."
" Maybe he was right. Maybe he was smarter than me. Maybe I was about to get dumber. Certainly he would think I was dumb for
wanting so badly to go to Shayne's to try getting high again. But I wasn't going to not do it just because of Steve.
"I need to get going."
ran all the way to Shayne's, worried I was too late. The air conditioning compressor was my
stepping-stone up to the fabled boudoir window.
was about to tap on the pane when, through the lilac curtains, in the
flickering light of a joss stick, I saw Shayne (her blouse mellow yellow) and
David (his pants striped purple and yellow) in each other's arms (her yellow
tangled with his yellow) on her deep purple bedspread.
that's what a boudoir was for. Just not
for me. Not meant to be.
never seen them kissing. I was jealous
that David had a girlfriend, and that girlfriend was Shayne, the only girl it
was easy for me to talk to. Mei Su had
never been easy to talk to, and I had never been in Mei Su's bedroom. No, Mei Su had never been my girlfriend. And now Shayne would never be. The very idea of a girlfriend seemed like a
first problem with a girlfriend was simply getting one. That was the first affirmative, so to speak.
second problem with a girlfriend was keeping it secret. Or dealing with the fact that other people
knew that I had a girlfriend. Why was
that so unbearable? Because it opened me
up to ridicule? Because it showed M that
I had feelings for someone else? And
feelings -- what were feelings -- how could I even think about feelings? That was a contradiction in terms. And when you're in a state of shock how much
do you really think? David and Shayne
were kissing and that seemed much more exotic and forbidden than drugs. And while I was thinking all this, Shayne saw
got a peeping Tom," she said.
a peeping Benjamin," David said.
I mumbled, flustered. Why weren't they
flustered from me seeing them kissing?
you going to stand out there all day?" Shayne asked. "Entréz vous."
through the bedroom window I entréz voued, parting the lilac curtains to climb
inside. "John Barleycorn"
played on her stereo. Lavender incense
curled toward the ceiling, a sweet purple haze in Shayne's purple room. Shayne's walls were covered with Bellarama
posters: Shayne in Guys and Dolls,
Shayne in Once Upon A Mattress,
Shayne in The Music Man. Her make-up table was cluttered with tubes of
Yardley lipstick, from ice blue to hot pink.
Acid rock albums and lime-pink-lemon clothes were piled everywhere. For me, coming from the white pall of Paisley
Street, chaos like this was the ultimate form of freedom. Let your freak flag fly, or let it fall to
the floor and don't bother to pick it up.
partner didn't want to get high?"
know what it's like to be dead," Shayne said in a perfectly Steve-like way
and I pretended to laugh along with them.
flipped his black hair back from his eyes, pulled a baggie of dope out of his
pants, and got busy rolling a joint, using a Monopoly board to clean the seeds
from the grass. David tilted the board
and seeds rolled down to Marvin Gardens.
It drove me crazy how easily things came to David -- without seeming to
do any work he scored 1540 on his SAT's, he scored dope, he scored Shayne.
sex for me, but drugs. Drugs would make
up for the lack of sex. Drugs was more
than I had had a day ago. Maybe sex
would follow from drugs, just not today.
door knob rattled and then there was a knock.
David instantly folded up the Monopoly board and the seeds rolled out of
Jail and into the purple frills of the bedspread.
is it?" Shayne asked in her queenly Bellarama voice.
got up and unlocked the door. I marveled
that her parents actually let her lock her bedroom door.
Peters came in with a cigarette in hand, looking like the Marlboro Man's
demented younger brother. He pulled a
can of Lone Star Beer out of his blue jean jacket. Gary did Bellarama's stage lighting; everyone
said he was a genius -- an electrical genius, a math genius, a chemistry
genius, an all-around genius. Geniuses
were supposed to act crazy and all-around geniuses were supposed to act
locked the door again; David unfolded the Monopoly board. I was thirsty for some smoke.
pointed the hot coal of his Marlboro and said, "Natural selection's gonna
get you, David! Natural selection's
gonna get you!" Gary was very big
on Darwinism when he got drunk.
ignored Gary and licked the joint into serviceable shape.
what are you losers doing?"
fun," Shayne said. She cracked her
window open as David lit the joint and passed it to her; I couldn't wait for it
to get to me.
call this fun? I'll show you
fun." Gary pulled the cord that
turned on Shayne's ceiling fan, then he jumped up and grabbed onto one of the
slowly rotating blades.
-- it'll break!"
rode the blade for a quarter turn then it tore loose from the ceiling and Gary
fell laughing in a heap of plaster on to Shayne's bed.
it was an accident."
whole life is an accident."
the joint never got to me.
was home and I wasn't high. Monday night
tuna casserole burbled in the oven. I
opened at the white Frigidaire and stared into its frosty depths. I wanted ice cream, but was forbidden from
eating it before dinner. Instead, I
lifted a cold orange carrot stalk from a plastic glass of peeled carrots and
is forming," M said, startling me, her dark eyes unblinking. I let my eyes swim out of focus and M's white
blouse and scarf blended into the white walls and white Formica counters --
only the dark parts of M were left.
"I said, frost is forming.
Please close those doors."
did as told and closed both doors of the monolithic Frigidaire.
a plate for those carrots."
don't need a plate."
plate is neater."
don't leave crumbs."
got a plate for me.
said carrots don't leave crumbs."
food leaves crumbs."
chomped defiantly, crumblessly.
"When have you seen a carrot crumb?
Do you see any crumbs now?"
not the issue." M crossed her arms.
the issue is crumbs and whether or not they are inherent to eating carrots in
general, and this carrot in particular.
And based on the prima facie evidence I would have to say that eating
carrots without a plate does not endanger the hygienic integrity of the
kitchen." I finished the carrot
with a vicious, decisive crunch. "I
rest my case."
you want to eat another carrot, use a plate.
Period. No debate."
judge, no rules of evidence, no debate.
I couldn't argue with M and win, so I put the glass of carrots back in
the refrigerator and walked back to my room.
on, wanted Jimi's guitar to wash everything else away, but it wouldn't wash
away, even with the volume pushed to "10", the ceiling and walls and
door were still there and I was lying on my bed like The Stranger in his cell.
CARROTS DO NOT LEAVE CRUMBS, I silently
screamed. And who gives a fuck about
tournament on Saturday, so Steve and I went to the Rice University Library and
staked out a cubicle. He sat opposite
me, typing. My fingers sat poised on the
keyboard of my portable Smith-Corona, on the verge of minting a blank index
card into evidence. But all I could
think about was dope. Did that make me a
stopped typing. "What do you think
about this argument -- we need the draft to supply manpower for military
intervention, but given it's political unpopularity, the draft is
could get sucked into arguing in favor of a volunteer army."
hate volunteer army arguments."
what do you think about the draft?"
a dicey argument."
I mean the real draft."
God for college deferments, that's what I think," Steve said and resumed
don't know what I'd do if I got a low lottery number."
won't have to do anything. You'll be in college."
the cubicle window, I saw David wander down an aisle of books.
hurried out of the cubicle as if on the trail of hot evidence. Stared at the back of David's head as I
followed him a safe distance behind, then veered into a parallel aisle,
tracking the squeak of his desert boots on linoleum. Intervention to acquire strategic
resources. Spy vs. Spy.
squeaking stopped -- I stopped -- peeked through the gray metal book racks --
and was startled by David staring back at me.
Caught. "Oh. Hi."
"Hi. What's up?"
said anything was up?" Weird
talking to him through a hole in a shelf of books, as if in prison, which is
where this should all logically lead, the moral of the story, the just
consequences of dopedom. Now or
never. "I was wondering...."
like to get some, you know...."
raised his eyebrows, lowered his voice, wiggled his fingers to simulate
quotation marks. "Quote cards? Do you want your own quote cards?"
you don't like my euphemism, pick another."
quote cards. Yes. Where do you get them?"
quote my source. And it'll cost you --
nodded agreeably, willing to agree to anything.
not soon enough."
3:03 PM, in the debate shack, at the lockers, David appeared. "I've got the quote card."
"Oh. Quote card.
Just a sec."
was across the street, behind the wheel of his mom's Buick Electra.
riding home with David."
saw David lurking. "Why?"
got some quote cards."
borrowing quote cards from David?"
might be good evidence, you never know."
were going to work."
still are, just separately."
looked disappointed and suspicious.
I was free, just me and David in the Camaro.
And a joint, ignited by the glowing orange car lighter. My second time getting high -- held the smoke
down, didn't cough. Are you experienced? Jimi asked.
Yes, I am experienced.
David parked the Camaro on Paisley, dug
into his pants. A red Trojan packet fell
out of his corduroys. Unembarrassed, he
repocketed it and pulled a baggie of dope out.
"Keep it in your underwear, no red-blooded cop'll look in
there." He passed the baggie over,
warm to the touch, and I gladly, gratefully held what had been nestling in his
pubis since when? Homeroom?
dollars, professor, and this fine lid is yours."
do I get rolling papers?"
on the house." He tossed me a
dented pack of Zig-Zags.
to come in?"
I've got plans."
dollars later, stoned and alone with my very own lid on the mothership. M & P gone until dinner. Roamed the white Arctic wasteland. Had the means in hand to elevate my high to a
the baggie. Savored the warm green cocoa
butter smell of all that grass just waiting to seep into my lungs, into my
head. So much dope, could one ounce be
fingers fumbled, stems poked holes in tissue-thin rolling paper, green seeds
fell into white carpet.
my corkscrew-shaped joint outside. Burn,
baby, burn. Smell drifting over
fence? Neighbor's watching through
curtains? M's Le Sabre pulling into driveway? No.
Didn't need any more smoke.
Stubbed out joint on sole of desert boot, stashed roach in shirt pocket.
onboard mothership, back at desk, admired baggie of dope. All mine.
Ow -- fuck! -- what the fuck?! -- roach was still
burning in pocket -- flipped it onto the ink blotter -- crushed out the orange
coal with a quote card. Brown stain on
the blotter, ragged burn hole in polka dot shirt. Quick covert action: turned ink blotter over,
hid damaged shirt, put on clean T-shirt, hid dope baggie in the gap behind
bottom desk drawer, below M's radar.
high. Nothing to it. Sit back, relax, float downstream. So many songs to chose from, which one to
play in my head? Alone, only me to worry
about, and who was me, chase that thought down.
Me chasing me. All this before
dinner, all these mutations before immutable Monday night tuna casserole.
next day, Steve came home with me, sat at my desk typing evidence. I was comforted by the presence of the
marijuana hidden behind the bottom desk drawer, something I dare not talk to
Steve about as I culled quotes from "Congressional Record," a boring
litany of where as and wherefores and there as and therefores,
dead dry crumbly words on pulpy paper, my fingers grimy with printer's
debate work wouldn't seem like such a drudge with some music. Picked side one of "Electric
Ladyland." Lowered the volume from
righteous "nine" to discreet "three." Instantly comforted by the timpani and
stretchy backwards voices on track one, I settled back to work.
stopped typing. "Ugh. What is that?"
Hendrix. It'll grow on you."
it a chance."
stupid. Did you like this stuff
you started using narcotics."
haven't started anything."
you tried marijuana again?"
"No." I turned off the music and counter
attacked. "Have you tried it
Steve was right. Maybe it was a
narcotic. Maybe I was narcotized. Maybe marijuana had already made my mind into
a hall of mirrors because it felt so convoluted, just him and me in my bedroom.
typing resumed. The music didn't.
Westchester High School Tournament.
Linda, the first affirmative from Lafayette, finished her speech and
stood waiting for my cross-exam.
of proof," Steve whispered in my ear.
know, I know," I whispered back.
them promise evidence."
walked to the podium and stood a half-step behind her. She gave me a knowing smile and took a
half-step back to keep me from upstaging her.
Standing so close, she smelled good.
But I couldn't let that distract me from the task at hand, destroying
the affirmative case.
contend that Unilateral Military Intervention causes the U.S. to be militarily
Vietnam typical of our military interventions?"
we are militarily over-extended in Vietnam?"
what is the harm of being over-extended?"
limits our military and foreign policy options.
It prevents us from responding to another crisis."
other words, we can't intervene?"
the harm of intervention is that we can't undertake the 'harmful policy of
intervention' more often?"
impairs our national security."
what is the harm of not being able to undertake a policy that you contend is
looked to her colleague for help.
"It impairs our national security," she quietly repeated.
at my desk, Steve had already pulled the perfect set of quote cards to
substantiate my speech. I knew I had
taken a cheap shot in cross-ex, but she had let me.
with quote cards, I returned to the podium.
When I looked up to make eye contact with the judges, I noticed Diane in
the audience, wearing a midnight blue dress that I saw even when I wasn't
looking at it, a patch of blue that was always in my field of vision. I couldn't help thinking about her while I
was speaking, not that I was stumbling over my words, but a little part of me
was always aware of Diane. And after the
debate, while the judge with the Colonel Sanders mustache filled out his ballot
and Steve and I re-filed our quote cards, Diane came over. What if the judge thought that Diane was my
girlfriend? Maybe he didn't approve of
her dress (it was cut rather low) and he might transfer that negative reaction
to his ballot (guilt by association).
Whatever my personal feelings about Diane or her dress, I didn't like
having the results of an important round put in jeopardy by such
carelessness. But the judge finished
writing up his ballot and left the room before any real damage could be
done. "That was great," she
whispered, so close that Patchouli perfumed her words.
walked out of the auditorium carrying the trophy, Steve one step behind. Wanted to get high to celebrate. If I'd had the foresight to roll a
joint. If Steve smoked dope. But we couldn't even talk about dope. What could
we talk about? Deterrence? Détente?
the David and Shayne getting into the Camaro.
David had foresight. David
undoubtedly had dope. "I'm going to
ride with David and Shayne to the party."
listen to some music."
Electra's got AM-FM."
got an eight-track."
looked skeptical but that didn't stop me from hurrying across the parking
lot. Shayne saw me and rolled down her
window. "Can I bum a
opened the door, I crawled in the back seat of the Camaro, and we were
off. When I glanced back, Steve was still
staring at me. David shoved in an
eight-track tape, "Light My Fire," The Doors, deja vu all over again.
turned around, trophy in hand. We
about a victory toast?" I asked.
to bring mine along."
too. We could stop by your house,"
knew so little of the tyranny of the mothership. Was embarrassed to educate him. "We could stop at your house," I
we stop at the party."
debate party's a natural high."
laughed. I pretended to.
mom's Electra was parked in front when we got to Steffi's. How had he beaten us?
carried the trophy into the house. Steve
had changed into a suede charcoal gray sweater and brought along his Broadway
cast album of "Camelot." When
he saw me come in with Shayne and David, he gave me this look -- I know you're stoned, you forsook me for
drugs. No point in protesting my
genuine, if inadvertent, innocence.
I should say something. Make some kind
of apology that didn't sound, well, too apologetic. Took off my jacket and tie, unbuttoned the
collar of my mint green shirt.
crouched at the black lacquered stereo console, cued up his favorite tune from
"Camelot," and nodded in time to the tepid music. And he dared disparaged Jimi Hendrix? "What's
this?" David asked.
most popular musical of our time."
to 'The New York Times.' Millions of
people like this music."
stopped the turntable. "Millions
more hate it," he said and deposed "Camelot" in favor of
"The White Album."
went off to sulk and David wandered off to Shayne and I found myself alone in
the den with the trophies the squad had won today.
First Place, Senior Cross-Examination Debate trophy stood shepherd over a flock
of identical but smaller trophies on the maroon lacquered coffee table, the
trophies' chrome-plating covered with fingerprints. Besides Shayne's victory in Dramatic Interp,
Steffi had won Girls Extemp, and Velikow placed second in Novice Boys
Debate. All the trophies had the same
chrome-plated guy on top, standing behind a chrome-plated podium, pointing a
chrome-plated finger as he made a chrome-plated argument.
Velikow said. The win had puffed him up
a couple of inches. "A technical
question. Those gestures you make with
your left hand -- would they be as effective right-handed?"
a technical question?"
left hand sliced through the air.
"You make this chopping motion when you make your main arguments,
and then you bring both hands together, like this, as you draw
was spooky watching him imitate me, spooky that he had been studying me so closely. I couldn't do me as well as he. "See, left hand, both hands, left
hand. Now what about this variation --
left hand, both hands, right
hand? Think that works as well?"
should go ask Steve."
"Thanks." He patted my trophy. "You and Steve, photograph number
four. History was made today," he
said and left.
there was only one of me in the room, alone with the trophies.
wasn't there; he had hot date, no doubt.
And I didn't see Diane. Maybe
Diane was in the back seat of Zalta's Coupe de Ville as he performed the coup
de grace. I liked being at the party
until I started thinking about the other places I could be, and the other
people who were lucky enough to be in those places, and then I felt jealousy,
the dining room, Steve demonstrated hand gestures to an admiring Velikow. He still looked hurt that we hadn't driven to
the party together. I resented the
implication of having to explain my innocence to him. "Have you seen David?"
gestured dramatically, his right hand slicing through the air, as if delivering
the Gettysburg Address. "In the
kitchen was empty, the backdoor ajar.
Went outside. Heard a car rumble
to life and hurried around to the front yard, just in time to see the Camaro
pull away. And did I smell something
sweet, something forbidden, had David been holding out on me?
"HEY!" I chased.
"Hey!" I tried.
"Hey...." I spluttered to a stop. Too late.
Why hadn't David and Shayne waited for me?
plodded back into the den. From the
living room came a chorus of debaters' that Steffi regimented into a game of
charades. I stood in the den, listening
to the floating voices.
eavesdropping, I went over to the chrome-plated trophies and aligned them into
a perfect row. This was just what M
would have done, and that made me angry, that her ghost haunted me.
you," Diane said, surprising me. So
Diane had come to the party after all.
She'd changed out of her tournament dress into wore blue jeans and a
Mexican wedding blouse with electric blue embroidery. We were the only ones not playing
charades. "Caught you admiring your
What could I say, what wouldn't sound
"I knew you guys would win."
a bad decision." Did that sound stupid....
contradiction she admitted in cross-ex?
That was no contradiction. She
should have said that being militarily over-extended limited our ability to
participate in multilateral interventions and that it compromised our ability
to defend against acts of aggression aimed directly against the United
States." ...or honest?
still think you were great today, but...."
you really believe the Domino Theory?"
That was easy. "No."
have trouble saying stuff I don't really believe."
Diane was a debater. Safe to talk about debate. "But debate's not about what you
really believe, it's about persuasion.
That's the whole point of arguing affirmative and negative all year
hate it so much when my dad talks like a hawk and I don't want to sound like
him just to win a debate. Do you ever
worry about stuff like that?"
Act "sensitive?" Or act like a debater? Stick with the affirmative plan -- debater
talk, not boy-girl talk. "I
just worry about persuading the judge."
smiled. "That's why you win."
Communists help me win, so I love the Communists."
smiled again. I liked making her
smile. I'd done it twice but that was
just luck. Making her smile wasn't a
skill that I had spent years practicing.
the victor goes the spoils," she said.
trophy isn't much of a spoil."
you say 'I don't know' I'm not convinced.
What victory spoils would you like?
Wine, women and song?"
Diane to be the woman part of the equation?
Or, as usual, was I making too big of a deal out of a couple of innocent
words? What did she really want? What secret agenda was I failing to fathom?
you can think of something. I saw you do
lots of thinking on your feet today."
this for thinking on my feet?" I
plopped down on the couch. Without
thinking. "Bring on the wine,
women, and song."
already got the song," Diane said. "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"
was playing. If Diane was really
listening to the words, like I was, it was embarrassing, to be together like
this with Lennon singing about doing it.
Diane picked a cluster of green grapes from the
ravaged bowl of fruit on the coffee table and sat down next to me on the
rust-orange couch. I noted there was
about an inch separating us, and wondered whether or not that was a good sign. And while I was wondering how to interpret
that inch, that gap, I felt Diane's hand tugging at my shoulder.
poor substitute, master," she explained in this "I Dream of
pulled my head down to rest in her lap and loomed above me, a
Patchouli-perfumed goddess of Meyerland myth, a Jewish goddess in a Mexican
blouse. We were just kidding around,
weren't we? I'd never kidded around with
a girl, except for Shayne, and even with Shayne we never did this kind of kidding around. Was this a ploy? Concentrated on how Diane's lap felt against
the back of my head, how my medulla oblongata nestled in the soft V formed by
her thighs. A green grape descending
from the heavens, and with the momentary brush of her thumb and index finger
against my lips she released the grape, to be devoured.
appeared above me, her eyebrows compressed into a question that she did not ask
(What's your head doing in Diane's lap?). "Your dad's here."
was all I could manage to squeak out, too shocked to say anything as I lifted
my head from Diane's lap and felt that soft V-shaped pillow vanish into instant
distant shimmery memory.
slinked through the foyer, past the living room and the charades game, a jury
of my peers watching me walk from the Lady to the Tiger.
was on the front porch, wearing his hairpiece, white Banlon tennis shirt,
powder blue Sans-a-Belt pants, white loafers.
I could just see him putting on his hairpiece and sporty clothes to come
roust me from the best moment of my life.
"Do you know what time it is?"
looked at my stainless steel Accutron watch.
thought you were coming home right after the tournament."
always a party afterwards, you know that."
mother and I expected you to come home."
be home in a little while."
kind of party is this anyway?"
just a debate party, for chrissakes."
say chrissakes. We expected you home."
hadn't had the foresight to close the Colonial-style front door behind me and
now I worried that the charading debaters were eavesdropping, listening to me
plead my case for staying out past nine-thirty on Saturday night. I couldn't believe that P was getting so
wiggy about this. Also, he'd gotten his
hairpiece just last spring and his sudden lack of baldness was still
should have told us you were going to a party.
We didn't know. We had to call
over to Steve's to find you."
it is not okay. Not after the worry
you've put your mother and me through."
worry. Let's go."
can't be serious."
am completely serious."
thought about arguing, but I didn't see how I could win, and the longer I
fought the worse it would be. I dreaded
going back inside to explain to Diane, but what would I explain? That I was a wuss? That my dad could drag me home at nine thirty
on a Saturday night?
me get my trophy."
be in the car," P said but did not step toward his white Chrysler
Imperial, parked by the front curb. I
walked from the toupéed Tiger back to the Lady.
was still sitting on the couch, grapes in hand, legs together, waiting for my
return, specifically, the return of my head to her lap. The teasing or temptation or trickery,
whatever was happening, had happened.
got to go."
smiled. There, I had done it again.
you," I said and felt stupid. Of
course I would see her, it was inevitable, we were in debate class
together. Not a hero's welcome, an
anti-hero's lame good-bye. See you.
you," she said and she didn't sound stupid. And there might have even been another smile
but I was hurrying outside with my trophy, afraid to look back, afraid of what
I must look like to her, leaving like that.
rode away in silence in P's Chrysler Imperial, Orpheus being ferried back to
the underworld. A silent return to an
air-conditioned nightmare, silent except for AM All-News radio. P listened to All-News all the time, even
Saturday night, when what passed for the news was a lame interview with General
Something-Or-Other talking about how great things were going in Vietnam. P silently accepted whatever was said. And was I also silently guilty of accepting
same? But I hadn't volunteered to ride
in this car, hadn't turned on All-News radio.
you won," P said.
Depends on how you define winning, I
saw Gary Peters smoking a Marlboro outside the debate shack, on the wrong side
of the chain link fence, to prove that he could, to prove he was an
you weasels are debating Vietnam?"
tardy bell rang. If it didn't matter to
Gary, then it shouldn't matter to me.
we're debating Unilateral Military Intervention."
technically is what the fuck we're
doing in Vietnam."
sure as shit does."
was Gary's older brother. If crazier
meant smarter, Barry was Einstein. If
Einstein were in the Marine Corps.
I'm against the war."
not. He says where else can he get paid
I could think of where else, but Gary had to have the last word, so might as
well let him have this one.
into the debate shack, late for practice.
Desks had been pulled every which way as teams huddled at work. I didn't see Diane and I didn't know what to
say to her about Saturday night, about anything.
Johnson's voice and the haze of his Parliament smoke drifted over the row of
lockers that partitioned his office from the classroom. Next to the lockers, Velikow was practicing
hand gestures. Steve was in the corner,
right hand cradling brow while left hand wrote furiously on a legal pad. He didn't say hello to me or smile, so vice
versa, neither did I. Neither of us said
a word about winning the tournament or the victory party or our separate rides
to same. Maybe we were both thinking
about the same thing we weren't saying.
At least I was.
silently slid me a quote card from Dean Rusk.
"What do you think?"
a more pertinent D-word, such as Diane or dope, but Dean Rusk. "I think Dean Rusk is a weird name. What makes Dean Rusk an expert?"
was Secretary of State."
he was in charge of screwing up the Vietnam War, that's what makes him an
do you think of the quote?"
what makes someone an expert?"
anyone with a title?"
what's that got to do with the truth?"
about logic. Evidence in support of
logic about what?"
about the arguments."
what about the arguments themselves?"
beside the point. What's gotten into
held index finger and thumb to mouth and made a sucking sound, his Dramatic
Interp of me smoking pot.
"No." Plausible denial, spoken with proper umbrage.
not working hard enough."
my Dramatic Interp of a cold-eyed stare.
the pantomime of playing partners.
Melvin Laird saying that we can't cut the defense budget after Vietnam, that we
need the money for national security."
handed me the quote card. Dead dry
it's a good piece of evidence."
shit. The Secretary of Defense is never
going to advocate cutting the defense budget.
It's against his self-interest."
argument," Steve said and rapidly annotated the quote card.
I had to do was direct my rancor toward Mel Laird and his ilk and Steve was
happy. I could do this all day; I could
do it in my sleep. According to my
Accutron watch I had to do it for thirty-three more minutes.
then I saw Diane looking at me, a lightning bolt I was unprepared to deal
with. My head in her lap, my
embarrassing exit, the chance of a lifetime squandered -- how could I ever talk
to her again? In a panic I quickly
looked back down at the quote card in front of me, my eyes locked on the words
of Dean Rusk, afraid to look back up -- if I sat very still and looked very
busy, Diane would think I was thinking deep thoughts.
heard the babble of other teams planning, plotting, gossiping. I tried to act look alone in thought, alone
in mind, alone in deed. My mind
wandered. My mind had a mind of its own.
"Hi." Diane stood beside my desk. She wore a white T-shirt with an day-glo
green peace symbol -- did angels wear peace symbols?
mind/body dilemma. My mind, her body:
there the dilemma began. Her mind, her
body: there the dilemma deepened into perplexity. She stood over me, golden brown hair falling
down to touch my quote drawers, like Rapunzel's love ladder. Around her neck, a thin gold necklace with a
mysterious lump hidden beneath the neckline of her T-shirt; that hidden charm
was like the snatch of indecipherable Beatles lyric at the end of "I Am
The Walrus" -- maybe it held the answer to everything.
she said again. "How's the mental
Am I that obviously nuts?
dad -- or your mom -- that's what you said Saturday."
was waiting for something and I wished she would explain what it was.
any grapes lately?" she asked.
I haven't had any grapes." But I'd like to. I'd
like you to feed me grapes, I'd like you to love me, I'd love you to love me. "And you?"
I haven't had any grapes, not since ancient Roman times, not since Saturday
wanted to ask her if she was busy Friday night -- or Saturday -- and if she
wasn't, maybe she would go out on a date with me -- for example, to eat pizza
-- but I didn't want to call it a date -- and it felt weird asking something
like that in the debate shack where everyone was listening -- and all I could
do was think about speaking and --
should let you get back to work," she said. I saw Steve nodding yes and I nodded a vague yes
because I was too pretzel-twisted to say anything. Diane went back to sit with her partner
Randi. I went back to staring at quote
cards, worried what would it be like after class -- how could I get back to her
question of grapes and the pizza question I hadn't been brave enough to ask?
an eternity, class ended and as I kept staring into my quote cards, endeavoring
to look busy, I heard the shuffle of shoes, the scrape of desk legs, the metal
clang of lockers, the squeak and bump of the shack door opening and closing,
feverishly wondering what to say when Diane came back over to my desk.
hoped to smell Patchouli but didn't, hoped to hear her voice but didn't, and
when I finally looked up she was gone.
you can drive my car."
yanked on my sleeve, stopped me from going through the door into Magnet English
where today Mrs. Wiley would be dissecting "Crime and Punishment." She was wearing bright psychedelic colors --
purple granny glasses, flower power blouse, Pink-A-Pade lipstick.
I'm going to be a star."
I recognized the lyrics. "'Drive My
baby, want to drive my car?"
that beats car pool."
after school. Now, with this twisty little thing." Shayne fished into the her macramé purse and
held up a joint.
going to be tardy."
tardy bell rang.
are tardy." The hallway was empty, except for us. "Let's skip school, you and me."
school with me and find out."
and me, doing something forbidden, together.
was boring Shayne, I wasn't keeping up.
double dare you."
Are you trying to seduce me,
not saying anything."
that what you call it?"
looked at how Shayne was looking at me, and if I wanted her to keep looking at
me like that, with a smile, then there was only one answer, I had to chose
freedom by choosing what she wanted me to do.
place or mine?"
if pondering a very weird affirmative case, I got lost in analyzing the
extremely weird moment I was now in. The
weirdness began with the joint in my hand, said hand in bright sunlight in the
backyard of the mothership, in the middle of the school day. Passed the joint to Shayne, who should have
been sitting next to me in Magnet English, but we were sitting in the backyard
with our knees almost touching. Sitting
in grass, smoking grass. Illicit,
forbidden, anything could happen.
Anything was happening.
I agreed, because agreeing had led me here, alone with Shayne, so maybe
agreeing would lead to some more extreme form of illicit thing. Like Mrs. Wiley had said about nihilism in
Dostoesvky, everything was permitted.
went through the air lock, into the mothership, without even knowing it was a
mothership. Maybe because there was no
mother currently onboard the mothership.
Weird watching Shayne inside the house, opening the refrigerator door,
just like she lived here. What if we
lived here together, just her and me, everyday between eight and three, she
looked so at home taking out the white box of M's leftover birthday cake.
hurried inside. There were chocolate
crumbs dotting Shayne's Pink-A-Pade lipstick.
"It's amazing chocolate, try some."
held out a finger full of cake. Real
cake crumbs, not imaginary carrot crumbs, everywhere. "Try some."
thanks. You should use a knife, it's
neater." I got a knife out of the
drawer. She put her fingers to my lips;
I had no choice but to swallow.
heil to Nazi German chocolate cake."
show M, defy her wrathful shadow. I cut
another sliver of cake for Shayne, neatening up the edge, and cut another
sliver for myself -- mmmms and ahhhs -- so I cut another pair of sweet
sugary slivers, the cake declining from an obtuse angle to acute, then to very
acute, today's sugary geometry lesson, until just a tiny sliver remained --
where had it all gone so fast? I closed
the white cake box.
will know if--"
"M. I like that."
can't leave the box empty. She'll know
we were, well, here."
was equally amazed that Shayne's mother wouldn't.
boy. Where's your room?"
didn't wait for an answer.
she wandered off to parts unknown to do things unseen, leaving me behind with
the mess. Licked the knife clean,
polished the stainless steel Gerber blade on my paisley shirt tail, put the box
back in the cold white monolith. Picked
up the bigger crumbs with my finger and ate them, shined the counter with my
shirt tail. Searched the white counter
and floor for telltale crumbs, incriminating evidence overlooked at the crime
scene. Hard to keep my mind on cleaning
with Shayne in my bedroom. On my bed? Waiting?
What would happen?
"If you could just get your mind together, then
come on across to me" -- Hendrix blasted from the stereo, loud
enough to hear outside.
to the bedroom -- record albums spread across the floor, Shayne at the closet
door mirror, applying a fresh coat of lipstick.
Mouth round and glistening, she caught my eye in the mirror. "All you've got is Hendrix."
the Beatles and--"
all Hendrix on top. What about your
famous filing system?" Happy with
her lips, she snagged a pile of quote cards from the desk and sat down
cross-legged on my bed.
guess that meant I should sit on the bed too.
After all, it was my bed. Wasn't
there significance to her presence here, more than significance, willingness? Had she come into my bedroom for a bed-roomy reason? The room looked and felt totally different
with Shayne in it, and not just the albums and quote cards spread around. Life had leaked beyond headphones and was
bouncing off the walls and it was imperative that I act nonchalant while I
figured out The Situation. Turning down
the music would be the death knell to whatever wild thing might happen. I sat down next to her on the bed, our knees
just shy of touching, close enough to smell her Krishna Musk perfume.
read a quote card. "You typed
fanned the deck. "All of
typed the even numbered ones. My
secretary typed the odd ones. We have an
would have expected you to type the odd ones."
carelessly scattered the cards. I wanted
to put them back in their place on the desk but I didn't. I had to prove that I was unbothered by such
looked at me. "So what are we going
Okay. The big decision. Maybe my life would divide at exactly this
moment from mundane to mysterious.
do something," she said.
wondered if the something was up to me.
go to Playhouse Toys. Wouldn't that be
that I hadn't done anything cataclysmic, such as trying to kiss her, glad to
leave decisions and cataclysms for later.
uncrossed her legs, picked up her purse and was out the door, done with my
I hurried to pick up the albums, quote cards, smooth the bedspread, I heard the
front door open. "What's taking you
so long?" Shayne yelled from the front door. What crucial detail had I overlooked, what
damning detail that M would see at a glance?
But I couldn't see anything except Shayne in my mind's eye. Had to keep up with Shayne. Which meant leaving my room, hopefully in the
same state as she had found it.
drove us to Meyerland Plaza in her Rocket 88 and led the way into Playhouse
Toys. "Let's buy each other
celebrate our secret freaky love. You
can't spend more than fifty cents."
tied her hair into two wiry ponytails, took off her granny glasses, played
her down the aisle of board games.
Shayne was a girl -- she was a friend -- could that ever add up to
girlfriend? Did she want it to? Why did she make it so complicated -- or did
I? -- how complicated could goofing off in a toy store be?
said you could follow me?"
said I couldn't?"
expect any clues. Pick my present
down the doll aisle, past all that flesh-colored plastic, until I saw Hippie
Ken & Barbie. "Guruvy Formal"
Ken in bright red Nehru jacket and shiny white pants, "Maxi 'N Mini"
Barbie in striped miniskirt, pink Mylar boots.
The Go-Go boot accessory cost fifty-nine cents. Maybe break the fifty cents rule, maybe
that's what Shayne was testing.
into her at the end of the doll aisle and she acted like she didn't know
me. Sneaked a peek -- she didn't have a
toy in hand.
the day had turned overcast and gray.
Yellow plastic curlers in a
lady's hair. A whiny baby in white bunny
rabbit pajamas. The smell of hot
asphalt. The ordinary world inching by,
second by second.
did you buy me, freak?"
out the pink water pistol I'd bought for her.
sweet, how romantic."
Texas guns are a sign of affection.
Where's my present?"
said I bought you a present?"
poked my stomach with one of her whole fingers, then let that finger stray down
my paisley shirt. I felt my Jockey
shorts tighten from the touch of a single finger. Maybe this was how a boyfriend and a
girlfriend talked and teased. Maybe this
was how she talked and teased David.
Maybe this was how she tempted me to taste that Pink-A-Pade
lipstick. "Don't look so
disappointed," she said.
not disappointed, anything but," I lied.
fished in her black macramé purse and handed me a water pistol, just like the
one I had bought her, but blue.
we're soul-mates." She pointed the
pink pistol at me and touched the "Hoover Sucks" button pinned on my
shirt. "Is that a hint?"
kind of answer to give to what kind of teasing?
aren't you kids in school?" this weird looking man in a muddy brown sport
coat asked us.
looked at me, scared for a second, then not.
ver buying de presents ver little mutti," Shayne said in a Swedish accent.
the man said, his breath like stale baloney.
"I'm Officer Stanslaw with HISD, and you kids are truant."
of M, visions of doom.
no, vee are exchange students vith Mister Johnson at the Hoch School-a, ja,"
Shayne said. "I am Heidi and this
is Hans. Hans de English is not so güt
Ich bin Hans." I hoped my second
year German could pass for Swedish.
we'll just see about that."
ja? We go back to Hoch School-a
now?" Shayne said with this Hans Christian Anderson smile.
what do you have to say for yourself, Hans? What does that
mean?" He tapped the "Hoover
Sucks" button with a yellow-stained finger. He mistakenly thought "Hoover
Sucks" was anti-FBI rather than anti-M.
American vacuuming cleaner? De
looked unconvinced by my one moment of truth.
he crank in the gegangen?" I asked Shayne, risking Yiddish.
ja, mishugeneh, Hans."
Stanslaw carted us back to Bellaire High School in his gloomy gray Plymouth,
which stank of ancient peanut butter. He
parked in front of school and Shayne made a beeline for the shacks. "Hey, you -- girl! -- Heidi, no, back
this way," Stanslaw's voice rising as he took off after her. "Heidi, stop! Heidi! Stop!"
disappeared into the debate shack followed by Stanslaw. I hurried after, chasing disaster.
was fourth period, Beginning Debate. The
novices were working on their speeches and Coach Johnson was in the back,
behind the partition of lockers, smoking, a copy of "Pax Americana"
open on his lap, its spine broken.
"Mister Johnson, this man bothered us at market. He not nice to me and Hans."
drew in a languid puff of Parliament and let it feather into his nose as he
stared at Shayne, Stanslaw, and me. A
large trapezoidal fleck of cigarette ash drifted down to his orange tie.
I see your ID, please?"
yes, certainly," he said and whipped out a cracked imitation-leather
eyes narrowed; more smoke feathered into his nose.
found these students at Meyerland Plaza during school hours, which is-"
Mister Johnson said we go to American shopping center for social study, to
learn America. Hans and Heidi come from
Sweden to learn."
Johnson gave me a chilly, Nordic
smile. "Hans and Heidi are here for
their senior year abroad and they had my permission to visit Meyerland Plaza
during their elective class period on America Life. Did you two lose your permission slip?"
really are exchange students?"
rooted through her purse and handed Officer Stanslaw the pink water pistol, a
tube of Pink-A-Pade lipstick, a stick of Juicy Fruit, a Tampax. "Ach.
I cannot find the slip of paper.
Always in America so many slips of paper."
I write them a new permission slip?
Would that make you happy?" Coach Johnson asked.
a little late for that." With a
baloney-scented sigh, he left the shack.
We'd gotten away with it. Shayne
deserved one of the trophies on Johnson's desk.
that was the worst Swedish accent I have ever
heard," Johnson said. "And why
had little Swedish meatballs for dinner last night," Shayne explained.
run along to drama class for a little Strindberg."
Shayne left, I felt weird, being stoned around Johnson for the first time, and
inched toward the door.
so fast. 'Hoover Sucks'?"
smiled and shrugged.
down. I'm sure this is all very amusing
"Yes." He waited for me to contradict him. Even stoned, I knew not to. "You could have gotten expelled. That's what Mr. Stanslaw does for a living,
he gets students expelled. And if that
happened, you could kiss your college scholarship good-bye."
don't have a scholarship."
yet. But you will. You're going to win Nationals."
You're going to win Nationals. That seemed so far-fetched, so unconnected to
me -- when had Nationals stopped
being my dream? "You're
am prejudiced, but that's what every other coach in the state thinks. Shayne is very amusing, and I love her
dearly, and I just went out on a limb to save her neck along with
yours." He paused to take a drag.
frowned and blew a jet of smoke at the ceiling.
"But Shayne has got a lot less to lose than you. Benjamin, you are a superior talent. Honor that.
didn't feel like such a superior talent.
"I am. I will. I mean, today was just, well, bad
says you're not working hard enough."
words hit like a slap. Steve says you're not working hard enough. Betrayed.
Accused. Accursed. "What?"
wasn't working on debate, not like I used to, but thought that was my
secret. "We've been
be deceived. You can slide further on
shit than on gravel."
nodded. Felt like shit and gravel. Felt sorry.
Not apologetic sorry but pathetic sorry.
The opposite of glory.
longer Heidi and Hans, Shayne and I sat side by side in Magnet English. I didn't feel superior to her. She had no problem being Shayne while I was
doing a fucked up job trying to be Benjamin.
Wiley sat at her desk and poured tea from a plaid thermos into a orange
porcelain tea cup.
suspect that some of you haven't finished reading "L'Etranger," but unlike Camus' hero, you have a reprieve,
because today we're going to pair off into teams of two to write a haiku. Scoot your desks together."
most honorable partner, Benjamin-san, to write most honorable haiku." Shayne took the bands out of her twin
ponytails, and ran her fingers through her thick hair until a fan of black hair
rested on the collar of her flower power blouse.
being a JAP good training for being Japanese?"
stuck out her tongue at me and blew a Juicy Fruit bubble. She was more fun than Coach Johnson and she
was a girl.
have three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables. The form dictates that there should be an
epiphany at the end," Mrs. Wiley explained, idly caressing her jade eye
many syllables for the epiphany?" I asked, knowing the question would
Wiley and her jade third eye stared at me.
"No more than five. If the
epiphany starts before the last line, you'll be marked down. You've got ten minutes."
about a water pistol haiku?" Shayne asked me.
lips moved as she counted syllables on her eight complete and her two
squirt of water.' That's a five syllable
is a haiku? Is it anything like an
IQ?' How's that for a rhyme?" I did a quick count. "That's fourteen syllables."
got the perfect finish." She wrote
out the haiku, our haiku, then handed me the paper; I read it straight through,
all seventeen syllables.
ending is brilliant!"
opening is brilliant!"
being disruptive," Mrs. Wiley said, looming over me, the scent of Jasmine
tea on her breath, the jade eyeball swinging dangerously near my own. "Why don't you share your brilliance with the class,
walked to the front, conscripted into my first poetry recital.
is a haiku?
it anything like an
IQ? No, no, no.'"
haiku provoked four hand claps and three laughs and Mrs. Wiley's two lips
pressed together. "Are you mocking
in the debate shack, Steve gave me a quick glance and then ignored me, favoring
his attention on a quote card.
complained to Coach Johnson."
just kept annotating.
I'm not working hard enough."
didn't you talk to me first?"
partners. You should have talked to me
gave me this look that said But we don't
talk to each other, not about that kind of stuff. And even if I was accurately interpreting his
look -- was I capable of accurately interpreting anything lately? -- I didn't
know how to talk about it. So here we
were not talking about talking. Talk
about absurdity. Where was Camus when
you needed him?
talk about this," he said and waved a quote card.
wasn't in the mood, but I had a point to prove, that I was a reasonable,
hard-working partner whom he had unreasonably undercut.
was telling me about this new ecology case that's floating around."
harms the ecology of the host country.
The example -- B-52 craters destroying the rice crop in Vietnam."
inherency," I said. "An
affirmative team can't prove that B-52 bombing will be a standard intervention
strategy in the future. B-52s weren't
used in Lebanon or the Dominican Republic.
So we're back to Vietnam is unique and the affirmative case falls
was surprised that Steve agreed. How
easily we agreed on argumentative strategy.
We talked like that for a while, as if nothing was wrong. Soon enough my abbreviated school day would
be over and I could get high again and wash away whatever bad taste talking
about B-52s left in my mouth.
was a Camus/haiku kind of day: The Stranger walked along the beach, I walked
home along Braes Bayou, under a dark sky that smelled like rain.
was in the kitchen, smoking a Salem while she kneaded meat loaf, her wedding
ring a point of gold on the white Formica counter, its surface abraded from too
much Comet rubbed too vigorously for too many years. She massaged the meat, eight fingers speckled
with pink granules of raw cow flesh; with her two clean fingers she extracted
the Salem from her lips to blow a meditative puff of mentholated smoke. She gave me one of her Silent Looks, silent
except for the metallic tinkle of her steel double-loop earrings. "Notice anything?"
as incriminating evidence from today's escapade?
looked more closely at M's carnivorous hands, slathered with cow corpse. Throw in some napalm and you had barbeque.
nodded at the white cake box on the counter.
the prosecution would now like to enter into evidence. Did as told, letting the ritual execution
unfold as proscribed by the executioner.
Inside was the acute sliver of remaindered cake.
day long I looked forward to eating a piece of German chocolate cake when I got
home, so can imagine my disappointment."
didn't realize there were restrictions on what I can and cannot eat from the
get fresh with me. Who said it was
permissible to eat German chocolate cake for breakfast?"
I didn't eat it for breakfast." Stupid!
Now she knew that the cake was eaten later,
when there wasn't supposed to be a later, when I was supposed to be in
school. And not just me later, but me and Shayne later. Why do
you think they call it dope? I had
silently smoked her Salem and gave me her witch trial stare. "So now you're arguing about the
definition of breakfast?"
she misconstrued my ill-advised admission as an argument.
doesn't get the cake back."
buy you another cake."
what? The allowance that you're not getting this week because you
haven't done your chores?"
go into my savings. Anything to get you
your goddamned piece of cake back."
DID YOU SAY?"
"Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry."
fumed. And smoked. I took the opportunity to steal away, as
quietly as possible, rubber souls squeaking on the white terrazzo as I
closed the bedroom door. Didn't want to
be in this room or house or world or body.
Wanted to be very high, but that wasn't practical just this moment and
the next best thing was headphones and those Castles Made of Sand. But "Axis: Bold as Love" wasn't on
top of the stack, wasn't in the stack.
on the desk or under the bed. Opened the
closet door -- the shock of Pink-A-Pade lipstick on the door mirror:
You are SUCH a stud.
That's all she wrote.
at Shayne, then flattered. Erased the
legend from the mirror. Found
"Axis: Bold as Love" on the closet floor.
Put it on the turntable, plugged
in the headphones, laid down on the floor between the twin beds.
what I should have said to M. The
Piece of cake.
thanks for being allowed to sit in the dining room.
protocol, everything ready before we sat down: turkey carved, white meat on my
plate, dark meat on P's, perfect dollops of cranberry sauce for everyone, three
identical slices of lemon meringue pie on porcelain dessert china, no serving
dishes on the table, just three white place mats for our three white
plates. Isn't it good Norwegian wood?
you like to say the prayer?"
thank God for the grub."
can't make a joke out of everything."
said that I was."
sipped milk as angrily as milk could be sipped.
But I would not feel so all alone,
everybody must get stoned.... What
would be like if M & P got stoned?
Would P dig Walter Cronkite as deeply as I dug Jimi? Groovy,
Walter, how many dead Viet Cong? And
M, the whining ecstasies of her Hoover: I
didn't know how really white carpet could be....
the turkey really that good?"
quite a smile," M said.
was just feeling...." What was I
"Thankful." The perfect Thanksgiving lie. Tried to keep smiling as I took another bite
of white meat.
dark, went for a walk, alone. Got
stoned. Empty sidewalk. Empty head.
Blue light flickered on other people's curtains. Wondered about life on the other side of all
those windows. Imagined everyone happy
inside. Or unhappy. Imagined me happy outside, alone.
I skipped school with Shayne, sometimes alone, but I never missed debate
class. I timed my arrival at school for
precisely two o'clock, as if arriving fresh from fifth period. I stepped through the door of the debate
shack and was assaulted by --
Hawkish first strike
vis-a-vis great society
escalatory infiltration of
Iron Curtain hamlets engaged
Domino Theory covert
the blank poetry of double-think and bureaucratese. No one noticed me. Diane and Randi huddled with Maureen and
Beth, a critical mass of the prettiest girl debaters. Philip Velikow fervently labeled a set of
yellow plastic index tabs just like mine.
Steffi whispered intently to Steve, their foreheads almost touching. Maybe they were talking about me, how I was
the obstacle, Steve and Steffi über alles.
Something was up, but my radar couldn't read through the self-imposed
green fog, my early warning system was down, Steve and Steffi were amassing a
First Strike capacity against me, my deterrent was ineffective. I didn't like Steve, but I wouldn't let him
get away with dumping me. Steffi saw me
first. She looked guilty, like I had
caught her hand in the quote drawer.
Steve gave me a quick glance and then leaned down to meticulously
annotate a quote card.
Benjamin. Hello," Steffi said. The kind of hello that said Please go.
gathered up some quote cards and left.
Now that the desk was mine, I didn't really want it, but I claimed my
rightful place. Hello's had been
unofficially dropped from our team vocabulary.
Stared at Steve, then stared at myself up on the debate shack wall. Photograph Number Four, smiling painfully
beside Steve. Had we actually won that
trophy just last month? A fluke, a
miracle, couldn't imagine it happening again.
were you talking to Steffi about?"
new affirmative case."
"Mine. I've got to talk to someone about it."
supposed to talk to me."
we're supposed to be doing
research. District is in less than a
District Qualifying Tournament, gateway to Nationals. Only the winner got to go. Natural Selection. "I know."
don't act like you know."
was wrong with me? Everything. But how to break everything down into
specific, definable, correctable characteristics? Needed a mirror and Steve wasn't the mirror
for me, not anymore. Why couldn't debate
be fun, not work, like it used to be?
Here in the debate shack couldn't I be like I used to be?
been thinking about a new case," I rashly asserted. "It's a definitional
approach." I waited for Stave to
say continue and when he didn't I did
anyway. "The U.S. can't undertake
Unilateral Military Intervention per se, but if it's to counter an act of
aggression or a threat to our vital resources then that de facto is an act of
war and we're not prohibiting acts of war."
unknotted his arms and lifted his head to regard me levelly. "That's a squirrel case."
not a squirrel case."
had sounded better to me before I'd said it out loud, when I'd thought it up
while listening to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" in Shayne's bedroom.
case. Pure sophistry. We'd get laughed out of the room. A new case means research, substantiation,
logic, not some definitional trick."
it's definitional brilliance. You know,
"Epiphany? That's Greek, right? Derived from another Greek word,
cannabis? And when did you come up with
this epiphany? Sometime before three o'clock? During your leisure time?" He
adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses as if focusing the sun through a magnifying
glass, like frying the wings off a fly.
"I guess skipping school tends to make one brilliant."
my secret wasn't so secret. "I was
Whatever you say, Steve. If speaking only made it so.
home alone, clouds like dead gray brain cells.
My head felt just like those clouds and we would share the same fate --
to drift into wispy non-existence or condense into rain and splatter into
oblivion. Debate practice had been
miserable, but worse things were to come.
through the mail, hoping for a college admissions letter. Instead, an ice white envelope embossed with
the scarlet B for Bellaire, addressed to M & P. Felt the white walls closing in as I hurried
back to my room, hefted the fake green leather letter opener. A spasm of panicked inspiration: took the
letter into the laundry room and used the Black & Decker iron to steam the
soggy letter was from Mr. Ridley, Bellaire High's Vice Principal....
...regarding the twenty three
days of school that Benjamin has missed this semester. When absenteeism reaches this high a level, I
want to talk to the parents and, if necessary, the doctor, if the medical
issues are serious. Please call me at
your earliest convenience to set-up a meeting.
I look forward to your prompt reply.
my fate in my hands, a damp white sheet of twenty pound bond paper. Heard M's Le Sabre pull into the
driveway. Ran back to my room, closed
the door, hid the letter in my briefcase.
M opened my bedroom door without knocking
and stood in silhouette in the white hallway, gold chevrons on the sleeves of
her black military dress, brass belt buckle catching the hall light, her face
lost in shadow.
you knock please?"
do you need the door to your room closed when you're all alone in the
I like privacy. Don't you?"
you grow up and live in your own house with your own children, then you can do
as you please."
about today? I want privacy today."
not healthy to sit in the dark."
She flipped on the overhead light and walked away, leaving my bedroom
door open, as if the opposing team just decided to stop debating after the
cross-exam and left the room without saying another word. And still won the round.
myself inside the guest bathroom door and rolled a joint to take with me to the
debate party. Looked in the guest mirror
and told myself that I didn't really want or need to get high. Some part of me was lying to some other
part. Took a walk on the wild side and
used the guest seashell soap to wash my hands.
on my sheepskin coat, but couldn't take that first step toward the master
bedroom to supplicate myself to M to borrow the Le Sabre.
going to the party now," I yelled down the hall.
back by ten," unseen M answered.
want to walk but I did.
I got to Eddie Zalta's house saw party shadows on the curtains. Didn't want to go inside but I did.
looked around the den and didn't see David or Shayne or anyone I wanted to talk
to. Quite the opposite, there was Steve,
his back to me, perched behind the wet bar nursing a Dr. Pepper, dispensing
wisdom to Velikow and a gaggle of Novice Boys.
my hand in my trouser pocket and felt the reassuring presence of the reefer, my
airlift out of there. Set it on fire and
suck in sweet smoke and things would be different in exactly the way I had come
to love. Lift that hand-rolled, Zig-Zag
cigarette out of my pocket, strike a match and everyone would freak. Just one little gesture.
found myself standing next to Zalta, an "All You Need Is Love" button
pinned to his purple mock turtleneck sweater.
He was combing his hair, always combing his hair.
master debater," he said, as if that explained me. "And there she is."
appeared in the foyer, wearing a robin's egg blue sweater that looked so soft
it blurred against her.
Bridgette Bardot of Bellaire," he whispered, as if that explained
her. Diane smiled our way and Zalta took
her smile as meant for himself and quickly closed the distance to her. Secretly defeated, I silently went into the
kitchen, past the six-packs of Cokes and Dr. Peppers on the counter, moisture
beads on the cold bottles. I could leave
by the back door, escape without notice.
I reached for the door knob.
you are," Diane said.
thought so long about which words to say that there were none.
"Hi." Or next to none.
you avoiding me?"
seemed like she was teasing. One could
reasonably conclude that she was teasing me.
you see me come in?"
guess I've got to corner you at a party if I want to talk to you. Remember the last one?"
in my brain with aching clarity -- the ecstasy of my head in her lap, the agony
of P rousting me. "Yes...."
I thought you'd forgotten all about it.
smiled. I didn't know what she wanted,
or what she thought, or why she could conceivably be interested in me.
a master debater it's hard to get you to talk."
me in front of a podium and watch out."
then, let's go find you a podium."
She held out her hand to take mine.
are you two up to?" Shayne said.
simple second later I would have been holding Diane's hand, but not now. "Nothing."
make a lovely couple."
smiled and threw an arm around me.
long has this secret romance been going on?"
for ages," Diane said.
sly dog." Shayne poked me in the
stomach with her maimed index finger.
nothing going on."
the lad doth protesteth too much."
arm fell away -- reprieved from the scary unknown next thing I was supposed to
say or do, disappointed about same.
you are!" Zalta said, cleaving the space between Diane and me. "May I get you a drink? Coffee, tea, or me?"
I blown it again? Crazy to think that there
had been anything to blow. But we had
been alone, a scary moment, intense and uncertain, and now there was Shayne and
Zalta and it was like I was looking at Diane across this vast distance of the
tiny kitchen and she was smiling at Zalta's suave inanities, and it all felt
complicated and claustrophobic and even if there wasn't anything between Diane
and me it was unbearable to watch Zalta charming her again, I didn't know how
to do that, wasn't trained, wasn't prepared, hadn't done the proper research,
wasn't armed with the proper evidence, so I stepped back out of the kitchen.
bumped into Steve.
more epiphanies?" he asked.
I feel honored."
didn't say anything and I didn't say anything and that's the working definition
of a conversation being over.
through a sliding glass door and stood alone in the night. Stared into the den window at all those
debate faces -- talking, laughing -- the happy warm uncomplicated life inside. Cupped the match to hide the flame, exhaled
smoke up toward a scattering of stars over Space City. Outside looking in was lonely and
around to peer into the night kitchen.
Diane leaned against the kitchen counter as Zalta leaned in to tell her
some big-deal story. Shayne mimicked
Zalta and everyone laughed, including Zalta.
They were having fun a million miles away.
The Problem, forgot The Problem, remembered The Problem again. Urgency and forgetfulness tangled together, a
nightmare I could solve this very night.
A secret mission, under the cloak of night, and now.
"The Lawrence Welk Show" from the master bedroom, duly reported my
return to the supine master of the mothership.
M-9000 logged me back onboard.
through P's study and purloined a sheet of tan Brown & Root stationery
embossed with his name, along with a matching envelope. Carried my Smith-Corona through the laundry
room to the back bathroom, the room farthest away from the master bedroom. Set the typewriter down on the closed toilet
lid, knelt on the floor and flexed my fingers, not to write a speech, not to
concoct another sophistic argument for/against the Vietnam War, but to draft a
real letter to be sent out into the real world -- under an assumed name -- P's --
with a real consequence, my continued freedom.
This would be a cross between Oratory and Extemp, a crafted piece of
persuasive rhetoric, but extemporized, by necessity.
Dear Mr. Ridley: Thank
you for your letter. Benjamin's high
number of absences this term are due to a malarial infection he contracted when
we visited Singapore this past summer.
But Benjamin's physician assures me that he is now healthy and the
fevers will not return. Benjamin, too,
is grateful to have his health back and hopes that his attendance record for
the remainder of the term will be perfect.
I'm sure you share my pride that Benjamin will represent Bellaire High
School at the National Forensic League District Tournament, and with his health
returned to 100% he will be able to give his usual 110% effort.
you need to contact me further in regard to this matter, please do not hesitate
to write. Because I will be taking a
number of business trips next week, written communication will be more
efficient than using the telephone.
you again for your concern.
lightheaded with the giddy joy that the words had so fluently flowed out from
my brain, down through my fingers, onto the paper. Words that would again set me free. And now.
Had to be free now. And high, very high, to enjoy just how free I
out the back door, felt weightless, released from gravity. Smoked a pipe full of weed as I walked down
empty sidewalks too dead for dreaming, letter in hand. Felt like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on a
toward the squat blue mailbox at the corner of Braeswood Boulevard, pipe
clamped between teeth, pulled open the metal chute, damp with dew, dropped the
letter into the maw. Tore up the
letter from Mr. Ridley to M & P, threw it into Braes Bayou. Watched little pieces of white paper scatter
across dark water. Re-lit pipe. Congratulations on a job well done.
it was a terrible idea. Maybe it was
terrible. Yes, it was. Terrible.
Stoned thoughts. Second
I'd dreamed all this up stoned, written the letter to Mr. Ridley stoned,
decided the letter was brilliant stoned.
now doubted it all stoned. It was too
late. Why did it always feel like
everything was too late?
the beginning of fourth period a note summoned me to the Principal's
office. I had been a fool to forge that
letter stoned, a stoned fool, and at hand was the fruition of that foolishness.
I waited outside Principal Andrew's office, Gary Peters slouched in, a bloody
handkerchief wrapped around a fist.
a mirror. What are you doing here, master debater?"
don't know shit about natural selection."
office door opened. "Benjamin,
please come in." I did as I was
Andrews had wavy gray hair and the good looks of an aging movie star. With him was Vice Principal Ridley, who was
bald and didn't have the good looks of an aging movie star. Principal Andrews handed me my forgery. As if it required further perusing. "What were you thinking?"
was contritely silent.
you really think you could get away with this?"
course I did. I wasn't insane. In fact, I was sane enough to contritely say,
could expel you for this."
should expel him," Vice Principal Ridley said. "I
should expel him. The letter he forged
was addressed to me."
if Benjamin weren't our top debater, maybe I would. If someone told me that a young person of
your caliber had lied about attendance and forged a letter such as this, I
would have said no, impossible, and defended you with my last breath. How do you explain this?"
Andrews expected words appropriate to a master debater who had behaved
inappropriately. Tell him what he wanted
to hear but make it sound like something I wanted to say. Even if I was no longer a young person of
character. "I don't know how to
explain it. The qualifying tournament
for Nationals is in two weeks and I'm under enormous pressure because everyone
expects me to win and there's so much work to do. I understand if you have to expel me. I brought this on myself, it's all my
spoken to your mother and father and I'll entrust them with taking proper
disciplinary action at home...."
mind wandered, conjured up fearsome images of M silent or screaming or
scrubbing me to death with a scouring pad.
put this behind us."
Ridley gave me a scowl that said Fuck up again
and your ass is mine.
Andrews gave me a smile that said You've
disappointed me, son, but you're a good boy, you won't disappoint me again,
shake hands on it, and you're free to go."
lied my ass off to save my ass and it wasn't the lies that saved my ass, it was
debate, it was hypocrisy that had set me free.
As I walked out of the Principal's office feeling hateful and grateful,
Gary Peters frowned, because I didn't look like someone that something bad had
my office, Peters," Mr. Ridley said, and the naturally selected rebel did
as he was told but with this smirk to prove that he was doing just as he
pleased. Me, I was going back to class,
and then to face whatever horrors waited at home.
to go? No.
Grand Inquisitor, P, sat behind his blonde wood desk, in white terry cloth
robe, sans hairpiece, top of head paler than face, an oddly reversed tan
line. The Grand Inquisitress, M, stood
beside him, arms folded, in black and white house cleaning clothes.
lied to us," M said.
lied! Absent from school twenty-three
days. You lied to your father and
me. Twenty-three lies."
if you count you and father separately."
get smart with me!"
didn't overtly lie."
"Overt? I'll show you overt." P handed me a photocopy of the forged letter
I had written in reply.
Lie Number forty-seven.
compressed her lips in white fury, eyelids drawn tight over the angry whites of
her eyes, arms crossed, white knuckles gripping elbows, white toes clawing
white house slippers. Nothing I could
say would make her happy, would uncoil her from that frightening white. But I could make things worse by
father and I are very upset. And very
disappointed. We've always trusted you
and you have betrayed that trust."
don't sound sorry."
you learned anything?"
been reading "The Portable Nietzsche." The Übermensch wouldn't have gotten
caught. Malaria and Singapore as an
excuse for absenteeism? An Untermensch
excuse. Yes, I'd learned something --
don't commit a crucial forgery while stoned.
really, really sorry."
already said that. You haven't learned a
thing." M turned to P. "He hasn't learned a thing."
I have." No, maybe the forgery
wasn't the underlying problem. It was
stupid to think that I could skip school twenty-three days and not get caught. Instead, I should have smoked dope secretly
in the morning, at lunch, whenever, wherever, however. I could have discreetly stayed high all
day. No one would have known. The whole skipping school scenario had been
fallacious. Yes, I saw that now.
very lucky that Principal Andrews is such an ardent supporter of debate.
could you work so hard all these years and throw it all away, just throw away
your college scholarship?"
college scholarship? I don't even have
an acceptance letter yet."
just don't get it."
been reading a lot of philosophy. German
it wasn't the right moment to talk about Nietzsche. I had to talk about something appropriate,
something they would believe I had learned.
been under so much pressure. Maybe it's
you should have talked to us about pressure.
You shouldn't have lied."
"No." Yes, I was fucked up, and they didn't know
why. I didn't know why. The fucking mysteries of feeling fucked up.
can only leave the house for school and debate events. But not for any social events, including
debate parties. We think that's more
than fair punishment. Don't you?"
turn to speak.
in my room. With the door shut. Alone.
Back in the white cell, the only sound the dull whoosh of central air,
grounded aboard the mothership.
got her own letter from Mr. Ridley. Her
parents talked to her about healthy vs. unhealthy rebellion, case closed, no
punishment exacted. In her bedroom it
was back to business as usual with David and Gary Peters and whoever else got
to have fun.
not me. I was under house arrest.
I could visit any part of the prison ship.
Maybe I could even visit the prison yard.
preferred the self-imposed exile of my bedroom, voluntary solitary confinement,
the white window shutters throwing bars of sunlight across my face as I sat at
my desk, staring at the sea green Smith-Corona typewriter, studying the black
and white keys, letting my eyes pick the six magic letters hidden in the
disordered keyboard alphabet: D, I, A, N, E.
Could I type up a piece of evidence to win Diane?
In the Fall issue of the "Journal of
Contemporary Love," Dr. Feelgood notes that "there are cogent and
compelling reasons to both recognize and respond to expressions of romantic
stolid, stoic, solitary reveries were punctuated by the angry clip-clop of M's
cotton house slippers as she patrolled the white hallway, armed with a can of
Lemon-Fresh Pledge, as effective as Mace in quelling Paisley Prison riots.
could go to school.
could go debate.
could go to hell.
if I had six brothers and we were all prisoners? Then I could wear a button that said Free the Paisley Seven, because Free the Paisley One sounded awfully
in another yellow and brown classroom, in another beat-up desk, my name written
in chalk on another dusty blackboard.
Lab tables, racks of empty Pyrex test tubes, a whiff of
affirmative team has asserted that Unilateral Military Intervention encourages
Communism. But what they have failed to
point out is that no country that we have intervened in has gone
my will, I listened to Steve's first negative speech -- he was so good, he was
almost making a believer out of me. We
weren't talking to each other, but we were coasting, all the way to the
semi-finals at the District Qualifying Tournament.
the Congo, not Lebanon, not Guatemala, not the Dominican Republic. And if we have made a mistake in Vietnam --
which is far from certain -- weigh this against the preponderance of successful
military actions in other nations.
Certainly our interventions did drive some people to the Communists, but
we destroyed the organization and infra-structure of the Communist movements in
the countries where we have so effectively intervened. I quote from the most recent issue of 'Foreign
somnolence of solemn arguments. As my
hand flow-charted the unfolding arguments, my mind wandered. Didn't people die in military actions? Shouldn't we really be talking about
I belatedly noticed, silence.
second affirmative speaker from St. Johns, had finished his speech and was
waiting for me to walk to the podium and cross-examine him.
to the left of me, the gray blur of Steve in his charcoal suit. I was disgusted with Steve's pursed lips, and
disgusted with myself for arguing Commie threat, Commie threat, Commie
threat. But I was one and a half debates
away from going to Nationals.
were expected to win and we were winning.
By accident? By pure, dumb
luck? By divine intervention? By natural selection?
was expected to stand and I stood.
to the podium I got a good look at the three judges: the paunchy guy had an
American flag button fastened to the lapel of his dark blue pinstripe suit; the
lady in the beige dress had a spot of rose lipstick on her teeth; the bald guy
in the double-breasted blazer fiddled with a Kennedy half-dollar tie clip. The classroom was filled with debaters with
legal pads flow-charting the round.
second affirmative speaker was short and blonde and there was smirk on his face
from beating us in the finals at Lafayette High two months ago.
affirmative plan calls for Congress to prohibit Unilateral Military
United States intervention in Vietnam is unilateral?"
with the adoption of your plan, the United States would withdraw its troops
smirk widened as I reiterated the planks of his plan.
this implementation would be immediate?"
walked back to my desk. His smirk
vanished -- two of my three allotted minutes of cross-examination remained and
he was flummoxed that I wasn't using them.
sat down, my briefcase and quote drawers no longer a comfort. Steve looked at me for the first time all
day, shocked that I had ended my cross-ex so early. "What are you doing?" he hissed.
me that Kissinger quote that says there will be a blood bath after we withdraw
waiting." He plucked the quote card
from his drawer and angrily thrust it into my hand. "Get up there, now!"
took my time returning to the podium.
affirmative plan calls for the immediate withdrawal of all our troops. At issue is not the strategic importance of
Vietnam or the deleterious effect of a North Vietnamese victory on American
foreign policy, but the chaos and loss of life -- the lives of American
soldiers -- that such a precipitous withdrawal would undoubtedly cause. As Henry Kissinger noted in his book, 'The
funneled the fear argument at all three judges, but particularly at the guy
with the enameled flag on his lapel.
was great," Steve whispered when I sat down.
the round Steve and I carried our briefcases to the auditorium in silence and
drifted apart while waiting for the decision.
I was certain we had lost. We
deserved to lose. At least we didn't
deserve to win. Coach Johnson blew smoke
at the ceiling and gave me a wink from across the foyer.
Shayne said, dressed in black scarf, black dress, black opera gloves, black
point d'esprit stockings, black patent leather shoes.
look like Morticia."
"Ophelia. A Third Place Ophelia." Closer, I smelled Krishna Musk perfume.
"Sorry." Only the First Place winner in each event got
to go to Nationals.
wants to say hello."
wondered who it could be as I followed her.
It was dark and quiet and cold as she led me across a sidewalk to an oak
sapling held up with splints; there was a marble bench, but we didn't sit down.
who wants to say hello?"
smiled but didn't answer.
suspected some complicated, unfathomable trick.
Shayne was a girl, and girls were complicated and unfathomable. Even more than life was complicated and
unfathomable. Maybe because life was too
big and vague to look at but girls weren't, and because life was general and
all encompassing, but girls were specific.
lit the joint. It was a freaky thing to
do at the District Qualifying Tournament.
She inhaled and offered me the reefer.
Her white face floated above her black dress, the red ember glowed
against her black glove.
"Why? You're a freak."
feels too weird here."
to do freaky things."
why not? Why not get stoned and argue
that Vietnam was good? Why not get
stoned and argue that the Communists were bad?
I could do that stoned. And we
probably lost the last round anyway, my debate career was over, why not jump
the gun, enjoy an end-of-the-era cocktail?
I took a deep hit off the joint then passed it back to her black-gloved
fingers. Looking up, the sky above was
yellow from street lights and mist hung in the air, trying to decide whether to
become fog or give up the ghost and creep away on little cat's feet.
Shayne hissed. The red coal of the joint
fluttered down into the dead brown crab grass at her feet.
looked at what she was looking at: Coach Johnson stood on the steps outside
tournament headquarters staring at us.
"Did he see the joint?"
don't know. Quick, come here."
we been busted? I couldn't move -- I was
as stoned as a stone statue, as stoned as that stone bench.
here," she hissily insisted. I took
a tentative step toward her and she threw her arms around me and gave me a
kiss. "He'll think we came over
here to make out," Shayne breathed in my ear then kissed me again, her
mouth open, her lips warm in the cold night air. Her tongue darted into my mouth. I felt an erection growing that surely she
felt as she pressed herself against me and I was embarrassed and tried to ease
my body away from hers.
broke off the kiss, draped her black-gloved hands around my neck and peeked
over my shoulder. "Good job."
face must have been a question mark.
acting," she answered.
didn't seem to be all it was about. I
mean, why the tongue? For authenticity?
still watching," she whispered and pecked me again.
wreath of Parliament smoke hung where Coach Johnson had been. But Diane now stood on the steps, her eyes
wide open, mouth crooked -- I felt an electric moment of connection in the
darkness between us. She was feeling
something and that something was connected to me. Certainly she was reacting to The Kiss. The Kiss that wasn't a kiss -- how could I
explain that? I wished I really
understood, wished I knew what to truly make of the moment, but I was afraid and
averted my eyes and Shayne's arms dropped away from my shoulders and I saw
Diane hurry back into the auditorium.
blushing, Benjamin. Are you worried
about getting caught smoking or getting caught kissing? Because you just got caught kissing by your
not my girlfriend."
she thinks I'm your girlfriend."
but now Diane must think I went around kissing David's girlfriend. I didn't know what to think about what Diane
was thinking, about what Shayne was thinking -- was getting stoned at District
just an elaborate ploy to kiss me? It
was complicated enough kissing a girl without being stoned doing it.
Coach Johnson. I had betrayed his trust,
betrayed the Bellaire Debate Gods, betrayed myself. Fuck.
It was almost worth losing because then I could just go home, back to my
prison cell, and be alone.
won! A unanimous 3 - 0 decision! We're in the finals!" Steve called from
Coach Johnson hadn't seen me -- us --
the dope. Maybe. Probably.
Not quite definitely.
Diane. This was no time to think about
Diane. Time to dig in. Back to the practical, I patted my pockets. "Do you have any Sen-Sen?"
have a Lifesaver. Cherry -- how
appropriate." Shayne made a big
point about putting the Lifesaver right into my mouth. I tasted her linty black glove as she
released the pink sugar circle.
"Break a leg."
with my flow pad.
my Bic pen. Tap, tap, tap goes the
at the marks on the paper, they must mean something, some secret thing.
second negative speaker finished, returned to his desk.
walk to the podium.
the buzz in my head.
could do it.
was doing it.
last affirmative rebuttal,
speech away from Nationals.
looked at me, waiting, nervous.
up quote cards. Robert McNamara, a quote
from Robert fucking McNamara. Forgive
blink later, at the podium, laying out quote cards, looking out at the faces:
Coach Johnson, Shayne, David, Zalta, Velikow.
Diane. Was she looking at me in
some new strange way? No, just me,
feeling stoned and strange.
Stoned. Could win stoned. Would win stoned.
words came tumbling out. Easy. Like a guitar solo. Just let them flow.
watch the faces.
Johnson...had he seen me smoking?
blue dress, white collar, ponytail falling across yellow legal pad, looking up
to smile. At me? My words?
What was me, what was words?
pouring out of my mouth, didn't mean a thing....
old affirmative case, tired old friend, tiresome....
quote (name, date, publication).
quote (name, date, publication).
slow sentence and then a fast one, mix it up.
not to look too much at Diane.
at everyone else.
at the judges.
time clocking down....
last perfect sentence....
...we therefore urge you to vote affirmative.
Diane. Impossible not to look.
back to my seat. Not a word left.
my briefcase back to the auditorium and waited to hear the vote. Teams always sat together, but Steve and I
sat at opposite ends of the aisle.
Moment by moment I was becoming unstoned.
and David had been beaten in semi-finals, and they were still sitting
together. Steffi's eyes looked red from
crying. David's eyes looked red from
herbal refreshment. Their debate careers
were over. My debate career would be
dead in a minute or two. After the loss
was official, Steve's eyes would get red like Steffi's from tears and mine
would get red like David's from grass.
Maybe we had been mismatched teams all along. Maybe maybe maybe, a world of maybes.
tournament director came out on stage.
The grim set of his jaw, that was just for me. Foreshadowing. I was sure we had lost. What a fool I had been, not waiting a mere
hour to get high. He would announce the
results and that would be the end of debate.
a unanimous 5 - 0 decision, Bellaire High will represent the South Texas
District at the National Forensic League Tournament.
I walked toward the stage.
Nationals. It was a miracle, we
were going to Nationals. Walking up
opposite aisles, Steve and I arrived up on stage at the same time. The lights were so bright. No, I wasn't unstoned, not yet. The tournament director handed us identical
trophies, squat chrome bowls.
hoisted his trophy over his head.
"We're going to Nationals!"
He held out his hand and I had to shake it. "It's going to be great!" He thought we were instantly best friends
again; all was right in his world.
"We need to work up a new affirmative case for Nationals," he
couldn't help adding. I couldn't help
tap on my shoulder and I was face to face with Coach Johnson. His eyes said we-need-to-talk while his mouth said,
coaches came up to congratulate him and I slipped away.
Velikow gave my coat sleeve a tug. In a
dark green suit, cut from the same cloth as mine, he was a shorter, unjaded
version of me. "Your rebuttal
speech was like silver, liquid silver. And
the way you planted the nuclear arsenal argument, it was just like the Trojan
up against a Russian first strike."
"Oh." I acted like I remembered. The Commie threat and the Iron Curtain were
melting together as I slid down from the dope high into the buzz of
winning. A winner who couldn't remember
how he'd won.
wheeled it in like a gift during cross-ex and then, just like in Troy, the
hidden warriors attacked and killed during your rebuttal and--"
"Hey!" Shayne and David interrupted.
transit gloria!" Velikow saluted as David pulled me aside.
told him the whole story of how you kissed me."
you kissed me, not vice versa."
kiss her again." David rattled his
box of Sen-Sen. I looked at Shayne; she
gave back a deadpan stare.
didn't kiss her, I--"
your lips touch hers?"
"Did your lips touch hers?"
"Answer the question."
giggled; she wouldn't help me.
lips touched mine but it was her idea...we had to because...." I lowered
my voice, "Coach Johnson saw us smoking outside the auditorium and--"
"Busted. So how does it feel?"
that was why David was screwing with me, not because of the Shayne thing, but
because I was the lucky one who had just won.
Didn't he know that being debate partners with Steve sucked?
appeared. "I've been looking for
and parsed repartee. What to say? Unlike David, she had seen The Kiss and she
knew that I had seen her seeing me, so there was this very complicated unsaid
thing between us, and why was it complicated?
I mean, what was there other than nothing between us? Took too long to answer what hadn't even been
a question. "Thanks."
were just deciding how to celebrate," Shayne said.
were?" I asked.
going to Galveston," Shayne announced.
"Want to come along?"
looked from Shayne to me.
Diane coming along because of me? With
me? Was this the fabled second chance to
make good on The Grape Incident?
can't," I said.
was back, all smiles. "There's a
party at my house."
shook her head sadly. "He's
I was back to being partner. "I'll try," I lied.
went off to spread the word of his dreary soiree.
Shayne repeated. An invitation. A command.
fruits of victory," Diane said.
the master debater, you'll think of something to say."
don't say anything. Sneak out. You're good at sneaking out. He sneaks over to my house all the
time." Diane crinkled her
forehead, wondering what Shayne meant, exactly the effect Shayne wanted.
plucked the trophy from my hand.
"Ransom. See you at my
don't know if I can."
you at my house. Right?" she asked
you there," Diane said.
& P were in the master bedroom watching TV.
won. We qualified for Nationals."
P said, and shook my hand.
too soon to polish a trophy. "Steve
has your trophy?"
a party at his house, to celebrate. Can
know, but we won."
think maybe we can make an exception," P said.
think Benjamin already made twenty-three exceptions and now he needs to learn
that rules are rules, win or lose."
had promised myself to nod agreeably but was still surprised that I did.
doesn't mean that we're not very proud of you," P said.
some champagne to celebrate?"
music." On TV Lawrence Welk, Mr.
Champagne, goosed "Strangers In The Night" out of his wheezy
squeeze-box. "And get yourself a
bowl of vanilla ice cream." M waved
her spoon. Ice cream in bed, her idea of
I'm going to bed."
had my room felt smaller. Took off my
coat and tie, put on a pair of tennis shoes, and held my ear to the door,
listening. What could they do, double
ground me? Was desperate to get to
Shayne's room because Diane was there.
& P would go to sleep in five minutes, precisely at nine o'clock, when
"The Lawrence Welk Show" ended.
Those five minutes lasted hours.
I'd promised myself to wait an additional fifteen minutes so that they
would fall deeply asleep before I sneaked out, but I cut that safety margin
down to ten minutes. Then to five,
worried that I would arrive at Shayne's after Diane gave up on me. Then to none.
out of my bedroom window during Lawrence Welk's closing credits and landed in
the flower bed with a loud thud. Several
innocent pansies died. Defoliation. Every covert action has casualties. Hurried away hearing echoes in my mind of M
ordering me back home.
when I saw a Coupe de Ville parked in front of Shayne's house, just behind
David's Camaro. Had Zalta nabbed Diane
around to Shayne's window expecting the worst, and through a crack in the
curtains saw Shayne and David and Diane but no Zalta. They were talking and laughing. They didn't need me to have a good time. Suddenly felt very shy about tap, tap,
tapping on the window. But I did.
entréz voued. Plastic Ono Band's
"Cold Turkey" on the stereo, Shayne's black Ophelia dress discarded
on the floor, like the dark shape of a victim at a crime scene. She now wore a tank top and blue jeans --
they were all wearing blue jeans while I was still in my debate suit. They sat cross-legged on the bed; there
wasn't room for me.
worry, I explained everything," Shayne said.
all looked like they knew something I didn't.
But I often had that feeling.
you had to kiss me so Johnson wouldn't know we were smoking dope."
forgive you," David said.
forgive you," Shayne said.
it was your idea."
forgive you," Diane said. But what
did she have to forgive?
they all laughed.
I told you he'd take it seriously," Shayne said. And I tried to laugh along with them as if I
had been in on the joke, even though I was the joke.
opened a Monopoly board, took out his baggie of dope, started cleaning out
seeds to roll a nice fat one. His black hair fell across his eyes as he bent to
the task, and the seeds rolled down to Park Place and Jail.
stole a glance at Diane; she didn't look scandalized or even interested in the
dope. I sat down on the edge of the bed,
near her, but not too near. David
steadied the Monopoly board as my weight shifted it.
dig this. The affirmative team argues
that even if we win in Vietnam, that won't stop the Communists, so why bother
with UMI? Then their plan is this
foreign aid crap about strengthening the economy of developing nations. And we lost."
Theory? Soviet Aggression? Have you ever lost with those
nodded again. I was the lucky bastard
who had won, and he was the lucky bastard with the ounce of Colombian. Best not to antagonize. Commiserate and get high.
finished rolling a joint and gave it a long wet lick. "A libation to the great debater."
libation to the great kisser," Shayne said.
wished she would stop talking about The Kiss in front of Diane and the best
thing I could do was change the topic.
"Are we really going to Galveston?"
closed the Monopoly Board and Park Place and Jail folded into a dead black
rectangle. He stuffed the baggie of dope
into his underpants. "The sparkling
waves are calling you to kiss their white faces," he quoted from Cream's
"Tales of Brave Ulysses."
rooted through the lipstick on her make-up table, deciding which color to wear,
and Diane and I went outside.
fell into step, side by side and she dangled keys, jangled them. "I've got Daddy's Caddy. Want to drive?"
cold air and the moonlight breaking through the clouds and the Gulf waiting for
us at the end of the road and the Cadillac and Diane -- especially Diane -- it
was pure adventure -- I was finally living an adventure. She handed me a gold-plated key chain and I
fumbled the right one into the key hole and unlocked the passenger door. I felt the heft of all that steel as I swung
the door open for her. Daddy's Caddy,
not Zalta's. Tonight I was holding a
Cadillac door open for Diane. As I
walked around the car, she unlocked the driver's door for me, and I slid behind
the wheel of that big strange luxury car, the white leather cold to the touch,
the pull-down leather armrest between us.
blue jeans against the cold white leather: felt like a haiku of who cared how
turned on the heat and twiddled the radio dial. "Incense and
Peppermints." A good song to start
saw me looking at her. "What?"
like this song."
were looking so serious before you said that, I was expecting some profound
I try and look less serious? Or try and
say something more profound?"
look less serious, and definitely say something more profound. You've got a reputation to live up to."
tarnished reputation." Her
Patchouli scented the warm safe world of the Caddy.
can relate to tarnished."
"How?" A stupid question. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
you heard all those rumors about me?"
only way to not say something wrong was to say nothing.
I've heard Zalta talk."
pressed her lips together. "What
did he say?"
persistence was, well, so persistent. What did I have to lose? Her.
Of course: I had her to lose. Not
that she was mine.
said you were stacked."
blushed, then tried to smile. "And
what else did he say?"
all. And no more badgering the
thinks I'm a slut just because I've got big tits."
couldn't believe that she was talking to me about her tits. It was like I was in a movie; it wasn't my
normal life any longer. "I don't
think you're a slut."
was afraid to say something because I might say something wrong. But Shayne tapped on my window and I was
is my very great honor to present you with this loving cup," Shayne said
and handed me tonight's trophy. I had
forgotten all about it. I held the chrome
bowl an inch from my face and stared at my convex, distorted reflection. My
breath fogged my face into oblivion. I
put the trophy down on the white leather between Diane and me.
and Shayne climbed into the back seat.
He had the joint lit before I got the car started. On the radio: Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed...Stay lady stay, stay while
the night is still ahead -- exactly what I wanted, exactly what I was
afraid to say -- was Diane listening to the lyrics as closely as I was? It was embarrassing, those words in this car,
I sped up the 610 on-ramp, Shayne's hand came over the front seat, a lit joint
between the two remaining whole fingers of her right hand, and passed it to
Diane, who took a drag. So Diane got
high. Something else to think
about. She passed the joint along to me;
I toked, then held the joint behind my head and David deftly took it away; we
passed the smoking baton as smoothly as any track team. When the joint found its way back to Diane's
hand it had shrunk;
she moved the trophy out of the
way, scooted close, held the joint to my lips, and when she passed the joint
back to David she didn't scoot away but stayed next to me, her hip lightly
touching mine. And we weren't even on
the Gulf Freeway yet.
Diane, you're not using your seat belt," Shayne said.
didn't realize that you were so concerned about safety," I said.
not. I'm concerned with morals.
Someone has to chaperone you guys.
Diane doesn't know you like I do."
smiled and turned to glance back at Shayne.
"What should I know about Benjamin?"
is not what he seems."
was always trying to find out more about myself, as if someone else had the
answer that I could never find.
"And what am I?" I asked and immediately regretted floating
noisily, greedily sucked in a full measure of smoke.
virgin," Shayne said.
Virgin reverberated in the climate
controlled air; I was mortified. David
laughed and coughed. I stared at the
road ahead, afraid to check Diane's reaction.
I had to challenge Shayne's assertion, undermine it. "How do you know that?"
just know. It's a feeling,"
Shayne said in her haughtiest drama queen voice.
assertion lacks substantiation."
way you kissed me tonight, that's substantiation."
I'm the aggrieved party," David said.
In the rearview mirror I caught glimpses of hands and tongues against
white upholstery -- he and Shayne were touching each other everywhere; the back
seat was what needed chaperoning.
do you think Benjamin's a virgin?"
kept my eyes on the road and the monotony of white stripes unwinding. Didn't dare, couldn't bear to look over at
an irrelevant question. But does
Benjamin think that I'm a
virgin?" Diane asked.
anyone think that?" Shayne asked.
don't know and I don't care," Diane said softly. Call a guy a virgin and it's an insult; with
girls it seemed more complicated.
virgin, virgin. I can't think of a more
boring topic," Shayne said.
started it," David said and lit another joint.
leaned even closer; I could feel her warm lips against my ear. Her breath had the clean sweet green smell of
a lime Lifesaver. "Do they always
give you such a hard time?" she whispered.
tonight," I whispered back to her.
And because of you. But couldn't bring myself to say that.
tilted the rear view mirror: David and Shayne had dropped out of sight. Diane saw me looking in the mirror, sneaked a
peek into the back seat, and smiled. On
the radio: Hello darkness my old friend,
I've come to talk to you again....
Had I let too much time go by without talking? Did she really like me? It didn't seem like anyone should like me.
rode like that for a while, listening to songs and not talking. Diane took the blue plastic clip out of her
hair, shook her ponytail loose, and her brown hair cascaded across her
Diane," I whispered.
what?" she whispered back.
you think that Shayne's a virgin?"
Shayne said from the back seat darkness; saying her name always got her
attention -- she hated to be left out.
Shayne asked again.
put her head on my shoulder; no girl had ever done that. Her brown her fell across me, entangling, oh
what a delightful web we weave, as the Cadillac climbed the bridge and we left
parked the Caddy at the top of the seawall and turned off the engine. There were no other cars. Diane lifted her head from my shoulder. Her face was close; she was in no hurry to
move away. It might have been the right
moment to kiss her: night, seawall, ocean, parked car. Except that we weren't alone. Shayne cuddled against David, but her eyes
were on Diane and me. She looked poised
to say something sarcastic. David looked
half-asleep, trusty baggie in his lap, rolling another joint.
go look at the ocean," Diane said to everyone, but it was my sleeve she
tugged. She got out of the car; I slid
across the leather bench seat and followed after.
walked to the edge of the crummy gray concrete seawall and I stood next to her
in the cold wind that blew off the water.
We looked out at the dark blue Gulf of Mexico and watched cumulus clouds
blowing in, hiding the moon, hiding the stars, and breathed the salt and ozone
smell of ocean.
beautiful, isn't it?"
I lied; the seawall was so dumpy it made the ocean look dumpy.
go down to the water." She started
down the crumbling steps to the beach and I followed.
was colder by the water. The wind roared
in my ears, mingling with the crash and hiss of collapsing waves. I will
never hear surf music again, Jimi had sang.
Diane's honey-brown hair blew back into my face and the whiplashing
strands tickled my cheek. I didn't dare
move out of harm's tickling way. Diane
hugged herself as she walked across the wet sand, trailing wet footprints from
her tennis shoes. I followed after, our
squishy ephemeral footprints side-by-side in the sand. The tide was going out, leaving behind dirty
sea foam and the white shards of ten thousand tiny broken shells.
stood beside Diane at the surf's edge, maneuvered to again feel her hair
blowing in my face. Everything was more
intense on the beach, five senses profused, confused: salt smell, rise and fall
of waves, cold wind on my face, dim moonlight on ebbing tide, and her. Diane was more intense, being with her,
here. I longed to exercise my sense of
touch, to touch her with the cold cowardly fingers that I numbly, dumbly
clutched against my pants legs.
are you thinking?"
hated that kind of question -- too direct, too pointed at me. But I didn't hate it when she asked me. The Heisenberg Principle of Romance -- she
changed the nature of the question by asking it.
profound?" she teased. She was
still hugging herself. I wished that I
was hugging her.
which is not trivial."
Epiphany: Diane and me. "Okay.
If we crawled out of the ocean to become people, why can't we crawl back
into the ocean and become fish?"
laughed, which was much better than mere profundity, and stopped hugging
hug me. She held open her turquoise
reefer coat and gestured for me to join her inside. Midnight blue bliss, her brown eyes so close
and looking into mine. The Short Happy
Life of Francis McComber, The Short Happy Life of Me, Sisyphus' rock finally
rolling to a stop.
so serious," she said.
heard Shayne's faint laughter on the other side of the wind and looked up and
saw her standing up on the seawall with David, staring down at us.
wish we were alone right now," Diane whispered. The situation seemed unbearably precarious:
how to get back to Houston with this same wish intact? I didn't know what to say. And silence didn't feel safe either.
thinking again." She touched my
forehead with her pinkie finger and I noticed, for the first time, flaking
mother of pearl nail polish. So many
things to notice for the first time.
"I can hear the gears spinning in there."
must be some perfect sentence I could say and while I was trying to think of it
she laced her cold fingers through mine, slotted her fingers until the webbing
of our two hands joined, and side by side we walked back across the sand and
climbed back up those crumbling gray concrete steps to the top of the
seawall. Shayne and David slouched
against the cold Cadillac. Diane kept
hold of my hand, which made me feel unreasonably proud, and bold, holding hands
with her in front of Shayne and David.
the beach?" Shayne asked.
you hear that, David?"
a lie." David wetted a pristine
joint with his lips. "Why did we
we've done it."
ready to go home," I said.
bet you are," Shayne said. "I
think Benjamin and Diane want to be alone."
raked across us as a car parked right behind the Cadillac.
flicked the unlit joint over the seawall.
black-uniformed cop got out. One of
Galveston's finest, tan looking, even at night.
I memorized the name on his badge: Officer Pope. Every detail was etched clear, as would be
the next twenty years in jail.
are you kids doing here?" Officer
Pope hitched his belt, heavy with night stick, gun, handcuffs, mace. I flashed on "Easy Rider."
came down to see the Gulf," Shayne said with Jewish southern belle
charm. "We drove down from
blinding flashlight was pointed in my face.
I squinted as my retinas screamed for mercy. "It's awfully late to be down at the
beach. How old are you kids?"
"Sixteen? Whose car is this?"
"Mine. I mean, my daddy's."
daddy know that you drove his Coupe
de Ville down to Galveston tonight?"
y'all have drivers licenses?"
and I pulled out our wallets, Diane retrieved her blue vinyl purse, Shayne
rooted through her black crocheted shoulder bag and we all offered up our
drivers licenses for inspection.
prayed that there were no roaches in the car ashtray. If they hadn't seen David throw that joint
away -- and if they didn't search his pants and find the baggie -- a big
if -- we might escape disaster.
that?" Officer Pope asked. His
flashlight beam gleamed off the chrome bowl sitting on the front seat.
my trophy," I said.
won first place at the district debate tournament tonight," Shayne
debated crime freshman year so I knew all about Miranda rights. We shouldn't give a cop permission to look
around inside the car. But he opened the
door and picked up the trophy without waiting for an answer. Technically, he had just violated our rights,
but this didn't seem like an opportune moment to start arguing.
were all at the district tournament today, over at Houston Baptist
College," I said. The tournament
had been at Robert E. Lee High School, but I transposed it to Baptist College
to make it sound more wholesome.
was the qualifying tournament for the national championship. We're all awfully proud of Benjamin because
the national championship is at the University of Houston this year, which
makes it really special, being in our home town and all," Shayne said, picking
up the torch of liberty.
sir," I said, "We go to speech tournaments all the time. David is president of the debate club. Diane is one of our best girl debaters. And Shayne won Third Place in Dramatic
didn't bring it, sir. And it's just a
medal for Third Place, not a trophy like Benjamin won for
cop slowly turned the trophy bowl in his hand, the flashlight beam bouncing off
the chrome to illuminate the crime scene.
"First Place, NFL District Finals, Men's Cross-Examination
Debate," he read.
sir, cross-examination debate. It's a
lot of work doing research at the library and writing speeches and such,"
the and such my down home touch. "Ordinarily we wouldn't come down to the
beach so late, but we wanted to do something special to celebrate."
this? What do we have here?" Officer Pope's flashlight had found David's
baggie, an ignominious ounce of evil weed resting on the back seat. "What do we have here?" he
repeated, his tone stiffening. He held
my debate trophy in one hand and David's baggie of green marijuana in the
other, the yin and yang of our existence.
to save me, us, Diane, had to extemporize salvation. "Oh, my God, do you think those guys
picked up these two hitchhikers in La Marque when we were driving
seemed nice," Shayne joined in.
really nice. This guy Chet and his
cousin." My palms were sweating,
but my voice was as fluent as a second negative rebuttal.
cousin's name was Albert," Diane added.
"They seemed very polite."
She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, the better to look like
daddy's little girl.
Pope lifted the dope to his sun-blistered nose and sniffed the baggie that had
spent many sweaty hours nestled in David's pubic hair. "Marijuana."
can't believe those guys were drug addicts!"
didn't seem like drug addicts."
their clothes were kind of dirty."
were all into it now, a do-or-die melodrama on the seawall.
you know that you should never pick
but it's so cold tonight and we felt sorry for them."
prize-winning debater should act a little smarter."
compared Shayne's license photo to her face.
"You can get robbed and killed on a cold night just as easy as a
sir, you're so right." She tugged
nervously on one of her wiry ponytails.
never seen this before?" Officer
Pope asked, waving the baggie.
No sir we all solemnly nodded. We were the most law abiding potheads you
is just awful. To think that we had criminals in daddy's car."
daddy's lucky that I didn't have to call him up and tell him his little girl
had been raped and killed tonight."
did these men look like?"
was a little older than us and he had blondish hair," I said.
he walked with a limp." David
brushed his lank black hair off his forehead.
the other guy was really old, way over thirty, and he had a mustache."
dropped them off just this side of the bridge."
cop looked from Shayne to me.
was my fault. I was driving."
we told you to stop."
I was driving. I shouldn't have
you should blame me," Diane said.
"I was the one who wanted to come down here to see the ocean
tonight. If I hadn't wanted to come we
never would have picked those drug addicts up and we wouldn't be in this
kids, you're lucky that nothing bad happened."
on back home to Houston. It's not smart
to be out this late." Officer Pope
handed me back the trophy. It was as if
I had just won back my freedom.
got back in the Cadillac and I again held that big white steering wheel in my
hands. I glanced at the cop car in the
rearview mirror as I fumbled with the key.
The radio blared to life -- "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head"
--happiness had never sounded phonier -- Diane and I bumped hands hurrying to
turn it off.
won that debate. Good first affirmative,
Ben," David said.
up," Shayne told him.
a waste. That lid was brand new,"
should have left it in your pants. That
and the other thing."
was careful to use the turn signal as I drove slowly away. I expected the cop would follow me but he
didn't. No one said a word until we had
crossed the bridge and were off Galveston Island.
ver amazing, Hans," Shayne said Swedishly.
you vould know, Heidi."
didn't scoot close to me. The trophy
listed on its side on the white leather between us. Figured that romance was dead for the
moment. Maybe longer. Maybe forever. Didn't blame her. Blamed me.
were all wide awake but no one was talking.
I was thinking about the Monopoly board David had rolled joints on, with
the little square for Jail.
turned the radio back on: Some pills make
you larger and some pills make you small, and the ones that Mother gives you
don't do anything at all.... I sang
along out of key and Diane giggled. That
was the only good moment the whole trip back to Meyerland. That and not wearing handcuffs.
we got back to Shayne's house I left the engine running.
should do this more often," Shayne said as she opened her door.
got the munchies," David said and got out of the other side of the
car. "You guys want to go to
looked at me uncertainly.
thanks," I said and Diane looked relieved that I had answered for both of
us, as if we were a couple.
fun. And don't do anything I wouldn't
do. Which is just about anything,"
I drove away it seemed like a very long time since Diane and I had been
alone. It was what I had wanted but it
was also scary, just the two of us, nothing else, no one else.
getting you arrested."
wasn't your dope."
know, but still."
it's the most exciting first date I've ever been on."
she regarded this as a first date.
"Really." She moved the trophy aside and scooted back
next to me. "And it wasn't just the
"No." She stroked my arm and laid her head on my
knew where she lived even though I'd never been inside her house. I parked the Cadillac in her circular
driveway and killed the engine. It was
like we were back on the beach. But
quieter. No wind, no waves. Wherever I hoped to be hurrying to, I was
there, I had arrived. I could have sat
beside her in the front seat forever.
invite you in, but it's late. I guess I
should drive you home."
that mean the night, this night, our night, was over? "No.
I can walk."
it's so late."
we were talking -- as she was talking -- the words seemed to drop away, it
wasn't about words, it was about the two of us sitting together, so close, it
was everything other than words, it was about what wasn't said.
she turned toward me and I turned toward her.
I was parked with Diane in a Cadillac and I was an idiot because I was
merely thinking about kissing. Now or never.
I was determined to kiss her.
Touched her arm. She touched my
arm. Touched her neck. Prelude to a Kiss. Closer.
Steady now. Past the fail safe
point and...the porch light came on.
Just my luck. We froze,
un-coupled, not much of a couple to un from.
Goodman stood on the front porch in red-and-black Karate-style pajamas. Not my P this time, but hers.
Daddy seen us about to kiss?
slid away from me and we got out of the Coupe de Ville on opposite sides.
this is Benjamin. Benjamin, Daddy."
have you been?"
the debate party." She ducked into
the car and showed him my trophy.
"Benjamin's going to Nationals."
"Congratulations." He made the word sound like its
opposite. "Inside, now." And he went inside, to show Diane how it was
second you wake up."
smiled and hurried through the door.
Like drawing in a toke of the very best weed, time froze, and I
dissected her fleeting smile. A
Meyerland Mona Lisa smile -- mysterious, kind, haunting, and a thousand other
adjectives triter than what I felt. As
she disappeared I felt something -- wanted to put a word on the feeling -- what?
Happiness. I felt unbearably happy. The clouds had fled from the sky, a
scattering of stars twinkled, the full moon hung yellow on the horizon. The air felt alive. I felt alive standing in her driveway. Exposed, every inch of my skin.
on the cold gray cracked sidewalk and looked at the dark yellow brick
house. What a magical house, because
somewhere inside was Diane. Every part
of me tingled and not from the cold.
a light go on. Her bedroom.
closer. Through a crack in the curtains,
saw the blue of her sweater and the pajama torso of Daddy. Couldn't hear what they were saying.
to go home. A long, cold walk along
Braes Bayou, carrying the trophy, tonight's loving cup. So much distance between the streets, so much
space between all the houses. No
cars. No people. Ain't
no life nowhere. So much to think
about, and it was all Diane: lips, laugh, smile, smiling at me.
was going to Nationals. I'd almost
kissed Diane. I didn't feel like
sneaking back into my bedroom just yet.
Camaro was parked in front of Alice's Diner.
Inside it was practically empty, a couple of geezers at the counter and
Shayne in a back booth. I put my trophy
on the Formica table and sat down.
having a toke."
didn't see him."
you get lucky?"
asked, changing the subject."
been a lucky night all around."
didn't take you very long."
What? I wondered.
have your way with her."
won't dignify that with a reply."
Peters came in, carrying a radio and record-player combo in a wood-veneer case,
sweating from the weight of it, but with his typical no-sweat smile. He plopped the stereo down on the floor and
scooted into the booth next to me. His
hair was greasy and he had a pimple in the center of his forehead, like a
puss-filled third eye.
know, they do have a juke box here,
Gary. You don't have to bring your
own," Shayne said.
stole it." He lit a Marlboro.
"Where? From your parents' bedroom?"
broke into Randi's house. They went to
you and Randi are dating,"
balling each other. That's not dating.
We don't go to the fucking soda shop and hold hands."
a predator. Darwinian. A hunter-gatherer."
on stealing my stereo next?"
blew a series of smoke rings. They
radiated apart as they wafted toward Shayne's face. "Hey, it was her parents' stereo. I'm not a bad guy. I'm a liberator."
you might steal my dad's television set, but nothing from my room?"
worry, Shayne, you're safe from natural selection."
police come here for coffee," I said.
flicked some ashes into the trophy.
why don't you park that stereo outside, Gary?"
don't you park yourself outside?" Gary snapped back. "It's a free country."
waitress nearly tripped over the stereo and gave us a weird stare. Shayne and I looked at each other.
were just leaving," Shayne said.
"The check please."
Gary said. He stubbed out his cigarette
in my trophy and lit another. It was his
last cigarette and he crushed the box.
slid out of the booth. I couldn't climb
out over Gary but the booth behind me was empty so I picked up my trophy and
crawled over the banquette. Gary just
kept blowing smoke rings.
standing in the cold air again, it felt great.
We had escaped. We weren't
going to be arrested, so it was another adventure, a story to tell.
"He was drunk," Shayne said. "A total alcoholic, like his
didn't seem drunk."
his breath -- when he was blowing those smoke rings in my face -- he could have
done a fire-breathing act. Looks like
David went one toke over the line."
He was passed out in the Camaro.
maneuvered David into the passenger seat.
Shayne sat in his lap. He groaned
but didn't wake up.
backed the Camaro out and started driving away when there was a bang on the hood. Shayne yelped and David woke up. "What the fuuu...."
jumped in front of the car. "Give
me a ride!" He banged on the hood
again, the stereo under his arm, his face red.
out of his mind. Lock your door!"
me a fucking ride!" He looked
deranged enough to throw the stereo through the windshield.
way!" Shayne yelled at him, and
right in my ear.
you asshole, let me in!"
"Shit." He was blocking my way. The police station was only a couple of
blocks down Beechnut. I imagined a
patrol car coming, roaches in David's ashtray, handcuffs, a trip to the
station, the Domino Theory of disaster.
us out of here," Shayne said.
Gary wouldn't budge. I tried inching the
car forward but he wouldn't move, he just kept pounding on the hood.
"Fine! Run me over!
Fucking run me over!" He
heaved the stereo and it shattered on the pavement. "My life is fucking shit so fucking run
out," David said.
waitress stared out the diner window, and the two old guys. Time had stopped and Gary was screaming. And then he dropped out of sight. "Hit the gas! Hit the fucking gas, Benjamin, you fucking
threw the car in reverse and backed up, revealing Gary, straight as a corpse,
hands by his side, staring up at the sky.
"Shit, he's lying in the road."
it! Just do it!"
hit the gas -- but stayed in reverse -- and we raced away from Gary,
backwards. When Gary saw what has
happening, that I wasn't backing up in order to run him over, but to drive
away, he jumped to his feet and started running after us like a madman. I drove backwards faster -- hit the brakes
hard -- screeched to a stop -- shifted to forward and turned the car around,
just like Steve McQueen. For once,
Shayne was too scared to say anything.
Gary caught up with us, while I was doing this about-face, and as I
peeled away he managed to bang his fist on the trunk. "You fuckers! Natural selection's gonna get you!"
safe distance away I hit the brakes and rolled down my window. I could smell burned rubber. "Natural selection already got you,
Gary! You're just too fucking stupid to
shut him up. Then I hit the gas and
watched in the rearview mirror as Gary shrank into fist-waving oblivion.
was great," David said and rooted through the ashtray for a promising
out of the Camaro stone cold sober. A
nod and a wave and the Camaro eased away, David too tired to press the
on Paisley. The house looked
asleep. My bedroom window opened with a
creak. The trophy fell and thumped on
the carpet. Stepped on the trophy
climbing in. "Shit!" Expected to get busted by M but was too tired
it back to bed and the safety of my pajamas, uncaught, undetected. More had happened than any other day of my
life so far. And between every flicker
of adventure that flashed in my tired mind, behind closed eyes, there was
Diane, and she was always smiling.
Smiling me to sleep.
did you get this?"
stood over me, the NFL District Finals trophy in her hand. She wasn't smiling.
fast. Wake up and think fast. "David brought it by."
"Obviously. Have you forgotten that you're
means no visitors."
what's this?" She showed me the
biggest of several dents. The trophy had
a lot of hard miles on it.
know it's a dent. How did it get
doesn't bother you that your trophy is ruined?"
this? It looks like someone stubbed out
a cigarette, for gosh sakes."
it does," I said, feigning sleepy outrage at the stain Gary's Marlboro had
left in the center of the bowl.
can probably scrub it out."
walked out of my field of vision. I
didn't turn my head. "You probably
can," I muttered.
dumb and didn't answer.
at my desk. Sunlight cut through the
white shutters, throwing bars of yellow light into my white cell. Diane's name and phone number sizzled in
purple mimeograph ink on the debate roster.
The Hoover hooved and I dialed and prayed that Diane would answer; I
didn't have it in me to deal with another M or P.
"Hello?" Prayer answered, she answered.
"Hi. It's Benjamin."
night was, well, wow."
you want to come over?"
can't. I'm grounded."
could come over there."
here? Under the cold eye of M? Impossible.
Untenable. Unbearable. "No, that's not a good idea. I mean, it is, but it isn't."
mean, it's complicated."
you at school."
dead. Felt dead.
I trudged down the covered walkway, lugging my briefcase back to debate shack
after a practice round, the baseball team headed the opposite way, cleats
clacking on asphalt.
it's Perry Mason!"
carrying a baseball bat, a penis-shaped piece of wood, far more ridiculous than
carrying a briefcase? As they clacked
off to the showers I heard Diane practicing her oration in one of the shacks:
instead of saying you are sincere, be sincere.
Instead of writing sincerely yours, be sincerely yours. Don't say 'honestly, I don't know' unless you
honestly don't know. Don't say 'I
sincerely hope so' unless you really and sincerely do hope so...."
stopped walking but didn't put my briefcase down as I watched her through the
doorway. She wore a lavender plaid
jumper and even at a distance I smelled Patchouli. What Diane was saying seemed so out of place
in an oration, but maybe judges would go for a sincerity thing, especially from
someone as pretty as Diane. Sure, I could
see it working for her. That heartfelt
stuff could be viable in Girls Oratory.
like sincerity and honesty are easy to say, but hard to live by. They honestly are," Diane concluded and
nodded to an imaginary judge. Then she
saw me standing under the covered walkway.
"Oh. Benjamin." She looked embarrassed. And hopeful.
Can you be embarrassed and hopeful at the same time? She expected me to say something.
then I realized that I, too, was embarrassed and hopeful. I didn't know exactly why I was
embarrassed. But I had theories. I was embarrassed because I was attracted to
her and that attraction was nakedly obvious.
And embarrassed that she had almost gotten arrested Saturday night. And embarrassed that we had gotten caught kissing
-- almost kissing. The hopeful part, that was easier to
deduce. I was hopeful that she liked me,
that she loved me, that she was the love of my life, and if she loved me then
the path to ecstasy would be simple and direct.
I thought all this, I was again speechless.
If she liked mutes, then she would have to like me. "Hi."
she said back.
knew that I had heard her speech and was expecting some comment and I didn't
know what to say. The safest path for
this coward was to seem in a hurry, to continue down the walkway. A stray piece of loose-leaf paper blown by
the wind wrapped against my corduroy pants leg, then unwrapped and continued on
its crumpled path to oblivion.
practice rounds complete, the squad assembled in the debate shack. Velikow now wore black horn-rimmed glasses
identical to mine. Zalta chatted up
Randi -- did he know all-around genius Gary Peters was his rival suitor? David and Steffi sat side by side, amiably
working. A quotidian moment, but in the
fluorescent light of the metal shack I had what Mrs. Wiley would have called an
epiphany: the squad was thirty-two mouths, and the bodies just carried those
mouths, and the cars just drove those mouths to the tournaments, where those
mouths moved, and trophies were awarded to honor meritorious mouth
movement. Maybe not a championship
epiphany, but an honorable mention epiphany.
sat down at a desk and worried about what to do when Diane came into the
shack. There wasn't much time to plan.
Coach Johnson commanded and curled his index finger in summons. I followed him behind the partition of
lockers. He sat down at his desk and
pensively stroked the wrinkles out of his apricot plaid tie, waiting for me to
speak. I didn't.
was quite a performance Saturday night."
inside and outside the tournament."
knew that he wanted me to ask Outside?
but I knew better than to ask a leading question, a question that would lead
the wrong way.
picked up his red and white pack of Winstons and shook one loose. "Care
for a smoke?"
I thought I saw you smoking at the tournament."
Yes. So he had seen me smoking
pot. I knew it. He knew it.
And he knew that I knew that he knew.
All this unspoken between said master debater and his speech coach. "The occasional cigarette to calm my
look nervous now."
should be careful about smoking. Bad
habit. Even the occasional
looked at me and I looked back at him. I
blinked and looked down at his brown loafers, the instep scuffed where he
tensely held his shoes together.
understand." His unspoken
warning. Between the lines, between the
lies. Let my freak flag fall from the
he said to the room. I was the only
person in the room. "You need to
get ready for Nationals."
No. I needed to want to get ready for Nationals and I didn't but I nodded yes, a
silent lie, so that I could walk back around the partition, where Steve now
stood with Principal Andrews. Steffi and
Velikow and Zalta and Diane and Randi -- the entire debate squad -- was a
tableaux vivant, all eyes on Principal Andrews.
Benjamin." He vigorously shook my
hand. "I knew you were going to
bestowed a great honor on the school and yourselves."
"And how lucky we
are that the National Championship is being held at the University of Houston
this year. I'll be there rooting for
great, Principal Andrews, just great," Steve gushed.
Principal laid a manicured hand on my shoulder.
"You re-focused on the essentials, young man, and you won. I see great things ahead for you."
Johnson emerged from his smoky lair.
these boys something?"
they are," Coach agreed.
you need, anything at all, let me know."
Rolling papers? Do you have some extra rolling papers? I'm all out.
and I have been working all year for this.
We spent a lot of Saturdays together at Rice Library and it's really
paid off," Steve said and put his arm around me. Were we buddy-buddy jocks now?
stood there with Steve and Principal Andrews and Coach Johnson. They were all smiling. Pure hypocrisy. Just because we had won. And, fuck me, what was wrong with my lips,
I'm be damned if they weren't twisted into a smile. I wiped that contagious smile off my face.
was looking at me -- I looked quickly away, pretending that our eye contact had
just been accidental.
Principal Andrews went behind the lockers to talk to Coach Johnson, Steve
stepped even closer. Was he planning to
kiss me next?
really need a new affirmative case."
"Why? We just won."
case is old. Teams know how to argue
know how to argue for it."
no element of surprise. I've got some
great ideas for a new affirmative."
started an outline."
to see it?"
managed to slip away from Steve and out of the shack. I had never expected winning to feel so
"Benjamin. Hey, wait up." Diane caught up with me in the walkway.
wanted to talk to you."
my oration. What did you think?"
wanted her to like me. More than
anything, I wanted her to like me.
"It was unusual."
okay if you didn't like my speech. I
just want some honest comments."
comments," I said, picking up her theme.
"Sincere comments to help me improve
it. Or tell me if it's too terrible to
fix and if I should just junk it."
expected something from me, a definitive opinion. I felt enormous pressure to say the right
thing. I had to say something. "Your speech was very...personal."
liked it, but people -- judges -- aren't used to orations being so
personal. Usually orations are about
impersonal stuff, like riots or assassinations or the generation gap. I never thought about sincerity as a topic for an oration. I always thought about it more as an adjective, that an oration needed to sound sincere, as opposed to being about sincerity."
picked a topic that meant something to me." She fiddled with one of the buttons on her
comes through loud and clear. But you
never know how people react to personal stuff."
that the truth," she said, as if I'd uttered the key to the universe.
universe? My universe? Our
more I think about your speech, the better I like it," I said, stretching,
scrambling for a higher perch to fall from.
"Really?" She smiled.
I had made her smile.
know it can be better."
walked in silence. Anything but
silence. Had to think of what to
say. What advice could I give her?
was something," she said.
"Yeah." But which part of Saturday? All of it?
The last part, the almost-kissing part?
Maybe not for someone like her, who'd had so many more kisses, so much
Coupe de Ville had pulled to the curb, Mrs. Goodman, in curlers, behind the
wheel. The seconds were ticking down,
the round was almost over.
grounded indefinitely." It wasn't
like I was free to date. It wasn't like I was Zalta.
could sneak out again."
hard to do."
"Mmmm. I bet."
looked like she wanted to say something more.
Or she wanted me to say something more.
As the de Ville drove away I wanted to yell after: I'll try to sneak out to see you.
That is, if you want me to....
to the master debater," David said.
His eyes were red and his breath reeked of Sen-Sen. "Did you hear about Gary? His brother, Barry, got killed in
I remembered seeing Barry at the JCC pool.
He was two years older than Gary and wilder. Wilder and deader. "How?"
on a mine. He was probably stoned."
does that matter?"
gets stoned over there."
Death. I knew someone who was now a war
statistic. Natural selection. Barry was dead and Gary was left with Fucking run me over! Death was just outside, it was cancer hidden
in the smoke we sucked down, death was just waiting to get in.
out," David concluded.
The negative rests its case.
arrest turned into a life sentence. Got
caught climbing out a window to rendezvous with David. Claimed it was for debate. Claim denied.
Diane in debate class, didn't know what to say, didn't even say I'm sorry, I'd like to see you but....
In support of my case, I quote Erich Segal,
esteemed author of "Love Story" who cogently observed, "Love
means never having to say you're sorry."
talking to Diane, wasn't talking to Steve, wasn't working on a new affirmative
morning Gregor Samsa woke up and discovered that it was the first day of
not just any Nationals, but Hometown Nationals, at the University of Houston,
where Henderson now coached.
stood out on the curb with my briefcases and waited for Steve to pick me
up. The sky looked too blue, nude of
clouds, and the air was too still, a tropical depression that verged on
black Electra pulled up, I got in, neither of us said hello. Steve wore his gray pinstripe suit, his short
hair still wet from showering. He
smelled of Old Spice Lime. It depressed
me to think about him putting on that aftershave before he came to pick me
up. He depressed me, period.
by an uncomfortable silence. But if we
had been talking, that would have been uncomfortable too.
Karma" was on the radio. I was
thinking how much I liked the song when Steve switched stations.
we got to the campus, the parking lot was full.
On our long, silent march to Tournament Headquarters I tallied license plates:
New York, Florida, Montana, Nebraska. It
felt like a church revival meeting, the way the crowd, dressed in their Sunday
best, thickened as everyone headed toward Tournament Headquarters for the first
day of the National Forensic League Tournament. The sky seemed bluer, the air brighter, the
heat hotter. Everyone could still be a
winner, there was a feeling of promise in the humid Houston air, because no one
had lost yet. Pure potentiality. Even for me.
shirt was sticking to my back as we carried our briefcases into the Liberal
Arts Building, crowded with faces. The
lobby jangled with nervous energy, fifty states worth. The stakes were as high as they would ever
be. And now I felt the dark side of
hope, a cutthroat feeling -- for one person to win everyone else had to lose.
Nationals. The listing boards weren't handwritten but
immaculate press-on letters. Tournament
officials wore embossed name tags. And
the noise level was higher than any other tournament, hundreds of voices ready
to argue, ready to lie, ready to psych-out, ready to win. So many faces, and I was one of those
faces. I was looking out at hundreds of
variations of me.
Benjamin. Hail the conquering
hero," Coach Henderson said as he stepped out of the crowd and shook my
hand. It felt like a lifetime since
Lamar High School, the first tournament of the season, when I had last seen
him. "Are you going to win?"
how it used to be, my old uncomplicated love for debate. He made me want to be my old self again. "I'm going to try."
sounds too conditional. You need total
wasn't feeling very sharp. I had not
picked a good day to not feel sharp.
to the challenge. You've been cutting
through the competition all year. I hear
you didn't lose to a Texas team all year."
we lost to a couple of Louisiana teams."
being so damn conditional. The recipient
of a compliment should not qualify or diminish said compliment. Better to feign modesty and say a polite thank
done. Spoken like the champion you are
soon to be."
gave me another hail-met-hearty handshake, pressing his dry palm into my
sweating one. Maybe things weren't as
bad as they felt this morning. Maybe it
really was just a matter of conviction: believe I was a winner, then I would be
a winner. Coach Henderson gave me a farewell pat on
with hundreds of debaters -- the enemy -- alone with my thoughts -- alone with
"Benjamin's going to win Nationals."
"Nationals. You need to
get ready for Nationals."
"I see great things for
all those quotes away in my unsharp brain.
Pull out the quote that wins the argument, wins the debate, wins the
returned from the posting boards.
"We're negative against Boston College Prep. They're supposed to be good," he said.
supposed to be good."
"Supposed to be."
are good. Rise to the challenge."
burst of bravado caught him short.
"We haven't practiced since District. We're not prepared."
is a state of mind." Bluffing Steve
was a suitable warm-up for bluffing Boston College.
hoisted up our heavy briefcases, threaded our way past rival teams, past
nervous but proud parents, and stepped back outside. It was an hour later and ten degrees
hotter. The crowd was moving off to
assigned rooms, and amidst the chatter and nervous laughter that filled the
humid air, Steve and I walked across campus in silence. An accusing, regretful, resentful, rueful
silence. A thousand kind of silences,
all unpleasant, all rolled into one.
the first round of any other tournament it was just the opposing team and the
judge. Not today. In the Boston boys corner was their coach, a
Jesuit priest. Maybe I should have
brought along a rabbi. On the Bellaire
side was Coach Johnson and Philip Velikow.
The classroom was filled with serious faces. Everything felt more serious, even the room,
as if the weight of scholarly things had stained the oak desks and chairs. And instead of my careful but amateur
penmanship, a tournament calligrapher had written the team names on the
and unrehearsed, I rose to cross-exam the uncircumcised Jesuit debater.
argued that military escalation is irrational?"
"Yes. Because it is politically motivated."
is irrational because it is
"Yes. Because politics are irrational."
if intervention is economically motivated?"
you separate politics from economics?"
according to the affirmative case, the United States had no economic reasons to
intervene in the Dominican Republic?"
you substantiate that in your next speech?"
we had no economic reason to intervene in Lebanon?"
the US import a significant amount of oil from the Middle East?"
depends how you define significant."
your definition of significant?"
had to think for a moment.
you substantiate that in your next speech?"
out of three judges laughed.
Steve said in a surprised voice when I returned to my seat.
or good-good? I'd settle for lucky.
to listen harder.
negative rebuttal, closing speech, last chance to shill the negative case.
sensations flooded in as words flooded out: Steve's eyes on his flow pad,
avoiding mine, three pairs of judges' eyes, one bloodshot, two bespectacled,
the second affirmative's thin ectomorph lips, the striped silk noose of my
tightly knotted tie.
passing thought: most words were meaningless but a few words could change
is the underlying fallacy of the affirmative argument...."
it's all lies, motherfuckers
turn then to the argument of inherency, which the affirmative team, through
three speeches, has never properly addressed...."
are, then, these four compelling arguments for rejecting the affirmative
don't take this fucking shit
all these reasons then, Steve and I ask you to vote negative. Thank you."
fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
thoughts that would not pass.
with a humble smile and a thousand silent fuck
you's I retired from the podium.
was great," Steve said. If he said
it, then it must be so. "We
won. I really think we won the round. We can win it all."
was happy again. He wanted me to be
happy with him but I needed a better reason than Steve to be happy.
need my own reason.
over Meyerland. Twilight of the debate
slowed the black Electra to a stop in front of the house. He said nothing, I said nothing. I got out of the car.
debated well today, didn't we?"
all about attitude."
want to stand outside talking and didn't want to go inside.
"Nationals. This is so great. We're in the middle
of Nationals." He reached out his
hand, as if a handshake could solve it all.
pick you up in the morning." If I
drove then I controlled the radio. At
least I could listen to some decent music.
we come listen tomorrow?" M asked.
after what happened last time."
was last year. I understand now that you
have to debate both sides."
there's too much at stake."
dropped. Tacit defeat.
meat loaf for dinner. Inevitable. As was the conversation. The usual questions, the usual answers. Good. Great.
Thanks. No, thanks. May I be excused?
outside. Night was warm. Walked and wondered how do I feel? how do I feel?
how do I really feel?
I asked myself that question enough times I might find an answer. Didn't feel that great about debating at
Nationals. Certainly nowhere near as
great as I had expected to feel. This
was it? This was the peak moment? Inside every house was flickering blue light
-- on curtains, on blinds, seen through a glass darkly.
horn honked -- I jumped -- the blue Camaro -- David and Shayne -- sweet green
smoke curling out the window.
for a libation?" David offered me a
shrugged. Didn't feel like getting high
and I quietly marveled about that -- why?
Couldn't remember not wanting to get high.
won District stoned. If you want to win
Nationals, I suggest partaking, professor."
sensible suggestion. But I'm
Camaro rolled away.
high. Wasn't worried about tomorrow.
that be true?
you forgotten?" M asked when I came back in.
are expected to obey punishment. What
should we do about this?"
me out of Nationals?"
it have killed you to ask?"
you have said yes?"
I don't think so I didn't say.
prisoner's breakfast: Tang, toast, scrambled eggs. Scrambled brains. Sat at the white Formica table and stared at
the white plastic place mat. The Silent
Treatment from M as she scrubbed and polished trophies.
told Steve that I'd drive today."
didn't say you could borrow the car."
I won't borrow the car. We won't go back
to the tournament."
keys clanged down on the counter.
Glancing up, I saw M's black pedal-pushers retreat back into the den as
she resumed polishing the trophies I had won for public speaking. She loved those trophies, even the dented
one. And now I was supposed to eat
breakfast and then go and open my mouth and say the right things to win another
trophy, that I would bring home so she could polish it -- in silence. Words were something I was supposed to say
someplace else, not here. A debater
forced into a vow of silence. Wasn't
that what Mrs. Wiley would call irony?
white Le Sabre smelled like a thousand dead Salems. Drove in silence to pick up Steve. Felt more alone when he got in the car.
he said without looking at me.
I replied, eyes on the road.
you say so."
it's good we didn't over-practice. We
didn't leave our fight in the locker room."
definitely did not over-practice."
The one premise that was irrefutable.
last day of Nationals, so this was The Last Pep Talk. And after Steve's inspirational blather, no
more words in the Le Sabre. We were
saving them for our speeches, those precious speeches. Yes, we were paragons of communication, the
nation's finest, silently riding to the National Championship.
made a bet with myself. Could I make it
all the way to my first speech without saying another word? I didn't even turn the radio on.
in the Liberal Arts lobby Coach Johnson said "Good luck" and I said
"Thanks" back -- so I lost the silent bet I had made with
myself. And then I forgot all about the
bet in the rush to get to the room and get set up.
debate began. I would cross-examine, I
would speak for my allotted minutes and then be cross-examined, I would rebut,
and I would be quiet before, in between, and after. Then
wait for the decision.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left
to lose. What the hell did that song
mean? I didn't care about losing and I
didn't feel free. Guess that song was a
lie. Think for myself, don't think in
all the way to finals.
final debate was held in the law school amphitheater, twelve tiers, each with a
sweeping curve of brown Formica desk that stretched the length of the room,
with orange plastic chairs attached by brackets. Metal baffles filtered the fluorescent light
into a burnished glow. Behind Steve I
descended the freshly waxed linoleum steps, toting my briefcase, thinking of
Dante, Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
the bottom of the amphitheater, in the pit, was a lectern and two long
courtroom-style tables. On the defense
table was a placard with my name and Steve's scribed in impeccable
calligraphy. Behind the lectern, on a
table covered with green felt sat two trophies, tall and baroque, First Place
gold, Second Place silver.
opened my gray Samsonite briefcase, searched for my flow pad, found instead a
Bic lighter in the bottom. I could set
fire to my quote drawers and watch all that absurd monastic labor go up in
smoke, like the self-immolation of a Buddhist priest. Instead, I asked Steve "Do you have an
extra legal pad?"
adjusted his black horn-rimmed glasses and looked at me as if I were an
amphitheater was filling fast. I felt
all those eyes on me, aware that everyone else was aware of me, other debaters
wondering Why not me? I deserve to be in finals, not him. And they were right. All of those debaters had legal pads and any
one of them would have loaned me a couple of sheets of paper but I didn't want
to ask a stranger. Steve was another
kind of stranger and I wouldn't ask him again.
I tried to act like no one was watching me as I huffed and puffed my way
back to the top level, against the tide of all those suits and ties walking in.
the hallway I saw what I was secretly looking for -- a friendly face, and not
just any friendly face, the friendly
face -- Diane.
was wearing her mint blue A-line dress with the sailor collar. I noticed that not because I noticed clothes,
but because I noticed her, all kinds of things about her, it was all
interesting, all essential, all those details to savor and sort through. She had a yellow legal pad tucked in the
crook of her tanned arm.
long had it been since out last set of hi's?
got an embarrassing question to ask."
for me or for you?"
"Me. Can I borrow your legal pad? I can't find mine."
it's an honor." As I reached for
it, she snatched it back. "But
it'll cost you."
Johnson and Coach Henderson came past.
They both gave me this thumbs up smile, if a smile can have thumbs,
thumbs up not to Diane but to winning.
pulled me aside. "You will
win. It is written," he quoted from
"Lawrence of Arabia."
course," I said, to please him.
time, the judges are on their way, it wouldn't do to linger," Coach
Johnson said as he and Coach Henderson went into the amphitheater.
Diane was a lot more than lingering and the debate couldn't start without
me. "I'll gladly pay."
will you sincerely pay?"
our private joke.
what are you thinking about now? What
profound thing?" she asked.
to say pleasing words. The final
tore loose a single sheet for herself then handed me the tablet, still warm
from nestling against her.
again descended the amphitheater, packed with bodies and their attendant
voices, felt all those eyes on me as I found my way back to the bottom, felt
hundreds of eyes on the back of my head as I sat back in my seat, back in the
pocket of silence.
Finals. I had survived the Darwinian process, natural
selection hadn't gotten me.
National Forensic League President, funereal in his black suit, took the
podium. "Welcome to the final round
of the 1970 National Forensic League Tournament. Bellaire High School versus Toledo College
Prep for the national championship in Men's Cross-Examination Debate. Will the team captains please come to the
podium for the coin toss to determine sides?"
the lucky one, you do the coin toss," Steve said. The Toledo debater, a tall wasp with wispy blonde hair in a
Nixon-blue suit, joined me at the podium.
wants to call it?" the President asked.
deferred to me -- let it be on my head.
President flipped a Walking Liberty half-dollar high in the air.
elect to be negative."
clapped. No one else joined in and he
returned to my seat. Steve shook my
debate began. I played the good debater
and flow-charted the first affirmative speech on that tingly yellow legal pad.
plan calls for immediate implementation by Congress...."
saw the timekeeper knuckle his index finger in half: thirty seconds and I would
stand up to go question the speaker.
affirmative speaker stood at the podium, waiting.
looked at me, waiting. Time to stand, to
ask questions out loud, appropriate, clever questions. Now or never. Moment of
walked up to the podium and stood slightly behind my opponent, so that he would
have to turn back to look at me.
opponent took a half-step back to keep his place beside me.
took another half-step back. He matched
my move. He was good. I gave him a moment to settle in and think
that we had reached détente.
amphitheater was packed, standing room only, dead quiet. Everyone waiting. Familiar faces snapped into focus: Coach
Henderson, rubbing his fingers as if conjuring a missing Silva Thin -- Coach
Johnson whispering to Principal Andrews -- Diane, poised with the single sheet
of yellow legal paper -- David and Shayne in the back row, bloodshot eyes,
probably high -- Zalta, in a stupid red turtleneck -- Velikow in the front row,
wearing his dark green suit that matched mine.
They were all expectant -- expecting me to win. Had done it before. Could do it now. Knew just what to ask. Felt like I was standing outside of myself,
watching from a great distance.
took a quick step forward, back to the podium, a surprise counter-move, leaving
the first affirmative speaker behind me as I looked up at the audience and
asked, "When will your plan go into effect?"
I said, our first plank calls for immediate implementation." He took an awkward step forward to rejoin me
at the podium.
under your plan, we have to withdraw from Vietnam?"
withdrawal from Vietnam?"
knew that I had him.
you," I said, and walked back to my desk.
was stunned by the sudden end of my cross-exam.
"No more questions?"
unless you'd like to ask me something."
murmur erupted in the room, everyone shocked by the abruptness with which I had
ended the questioning -- everyone except Coach Johnson and Steve. Johnson smiled and leaned toward Principal
Andrews to explain my stratagem.
at my desk, I gathered up my quote cards.
can kill him now," Steve gloated.
picked up a stack of quote cards and felt the weary sad hopeful labor of all
that typing, the weight of every typed and spoken word that had gotten me to this
from Vietnam immediately was a great idea, it was the best thing that could
possibly happen, and I was about to attack just that.
debate wasn't about ideas. It was about
after arguing, what was left of me? This
was it, last chance, win or lose, this was the ending, my ending. The Lady or the Tiger. Now or never.
Now and never.
stood, legal pad and quote cards in hand.
All I had to do was walk to the podium.
All I had to do was the normal thing, what was expected of me.
speech away from bringing home another trophy, the biggest trophy of all, for M
stood at the bottom of the law school amphitheater. Debaters were expected to go to law
school. I was looking out at me, at my
future, staring out at a version of my life, now and forever. I could sit in some similar amphitheater with
my legal pad and take notes and be a master law student and then a master
lawyer. I could get paid lots of money
to argue. I could be a master bastard.
were waiting. Hands were poised above
legal pads to notate and rate my arguments.
at the podium. Felt the tension
building. Silently surveyed the
room. Master of the realm, for the
moment. My turn to speak.
those eyes. All those mouths quiet,
finally quiet, because it was my turn to speak.
All those ties wrapped around all those necks.
say something worth saying.
words. It all came down to this.
cough. A whisper. Then another whisper. It was all I could do to keep from smiling --
and why shouldn't I smile -- what rule book said Don't Smile?
whispers. Coach Johnson's face scrunched
into a silent question -- his silence questioning mine -- what was I doing?
what was I waiting for?
didn't feel like speaking. I liked the
idea of ending my debate career an hour early.
On my terms.
I could speak about all of these things I was thinking. Veer off the topic. Resolved: that Benjamin should say whatever
the fuck he likes.
of whispers now -- all those faces ringed above, staring at me -- strangers --
friends -- strange friends -- Diane.
was wondering. I was wondering. Didn't have a plan. Just didn't feel like speaking.
murmur built. More than whispers. Crossed a line. That first murmur was like the first troops
landing in Vietnam. No turning
back. Peace with honor. Not speaking felt better and better. Felt right.
Much better than winning that gold trophy.
was doing what I wanted to do. Being
myself. Easy -- didn't have to do a
thing, didn't have to say a word. An
Anti-Speech by an Anti-Hero, as Mrs. Wiley might explain it.
at the bottom of the amphitheater looking up, couldn't help smiling as I
scanned the audience, just as I would during a speech. This was how I stepped back from the words
while making a speech, as if the speaking was coming from a different part of
myself, except this time the Anti-Speech was all of me, I didn't have to step
back from anything.
Johnson mouthed Speak, goddammit, speak!
and Coach Henderson shook his head sadly, thinking Oh poor troubled soul, throwing it all away, and David wondered Is this really happening or am I too high to
hear him?, and Coach Johnson tried to placate an apoplectic Principal
Andrews. Only Zalta smiled, nothing like
someone else's fuck-up to make you feel good about yourself.
room was getting louder and stranger. I
imagined what they were saying -- he's
crazy -- nervous breakdown -- too many drugs -- let them say whatever they
wanted, as long as I didn't have to say anything.
grew to a roar. Felt the floor under my
feet as I rocked on my heels. Coach
Johnson raced down to the podium. Steve
jumped up from his chair.
in hell is wrong?" Johnson asked with stale cigarette breath.
retirement from being a trained seal.
why aren't you making your speech?"
National Forensic League President came to the podium, a Lifesaver clacking
against his teeth. It was like a
pitcher's mound. "There is a five
minute time limit between speeches.
Shall we all sit down and continue?" he said, his words wintergreen
okay to be nervous," Coach said and patted my shoulder. "You'll do just fine."
please continue," the President said.
went hopefully back to their seats.
vote, right?" Steve said, the last to leave.
let my hands rest lightly on the podium.
At home, at peace. Coach Johnson
and the NFL President settled back in their seats. The room quieted down. Murmurs fell to whispers, then the whispers
fell away and all I could hear was my own breathing. All I could hear was me. Did breathing count as speaking? Everyone looked at me, all those extraneous
eyes and mouths -- except Diane. She was
only one with me. She smiled.
Better than a Mona Lisa smile. A
smile just for me. I smiled back.
minutes are up! The Bellaire team
forfeits!" the NFL President snapped.
darn you!" Steve screeched.
roar of words and leaping from seats, the team from Toledo elated.
you screwed me
threw it all away
forget the scholarship
of the pit, eye of the hurricane, tempest in a tea pot.
up my quote cards and tapped them together.
Walked away from the lectern.
Abandon your briefcase all who enter here. Benjamin this and Benjamin that, yap, yap,
yap. Voices tugged at me. Velikow's hand on my sleeve, sad eyes of the
acolyte. Escaped up the center aisle,
black loafers on brown linoleum, out of the pit, tier by tier. The red exit sign, just ahead.
out in the morning sun, surprised to see the quote cards still in hand. Tossed the cards into the air, watched those
useless white squares flutter down to dead brown grass.
around. Radio loud. No Steve, no briefcase. Just me.
home, out of habit. Home was a habit.
Night. All quiet back on the mothership.
letter waiting on the kitchen table, SSS on the envelope, one S more than the
Nazi SS, the Selective Service System.
Inside, my Draft Registration Card.
The accompanying letter said I was required by law to keep it in my
wallet at all times. There would be a
lottery, and if my number was low enough I would have the honor of joining the
honorable army to help achieve peace with honor in Vietnam. Reality arrived in a white envelope, the
perfect antidote to the unreality of white quote cards. Here was an unwanted opportunity to find out
just how unreal the Vietnam War really was.
As unreal as Gary Peters dead brother.
Turn me on, dead man.
free man's dinner: corned beef, Muenster cheese, dill pickles, rye bread,
mustard. Crumbs everywhere, a glorious
the hallway light switch on, incandescent light reflected off polished white
terrazzo, heard the stiff swish of polyester.
M appeared, robed in quilted white, followed by P in white pajamas.
have you been?"
does it matter? I was driving and now
decide what matters."
was driving in circles. Do you want me
to draw it for you on a map?"
eyed the crumbs. "What's gotten
sandwich. A corned beef sandwich got into
extremely upset. Everyone is extremely upset. Steve's beside himself. His mother wants to kill you. I called Coach
Johnson and he wouldn't even talk to
me. I'm sure that he never wants to talk
to you again. You walked out of the championship
didn't walk out. I just didn't say
didn't say anything -- in a debate?
Are you insane?"
you dare debate me now!
You're acting crazy -- a crazy person disregards all the
didn't disregard the rules. I just
didn't want to speak. I accept the fact
that we lost."
Steve doesn't and Coach Johnson doesn't and I don't."
has this got to do with freedom of speech?"
free not to speak."
in the National Championship!"
look on the bright side, we won second place."
glad you find this so amusing."
you just said that it was."
getting very upset."
you already were very upset."
getting more upset."
about your scholarship?"
think we're going to pay for college after this?"
don't want to go to college."
you'll be drafted."
heard of Canada?"
now you're a draft dodger?"
-- depends on my lottery number."
what you think about this country?"
what I think about the Vietnam War."
talk about what happened today, okay?
Because that is not okay."
looked at them. There was nothing I
could persuade them of. And then it
occurred to be that this was another debate I could walk out of. And I did, scrunching sideways to get past M
in her stiffly quilted white robe.
can't just leave."
can't just leave this mess."
Right. This mess: the dirty white plate and brown
bread crumbs and mustard stained knife and uncapped mustard bottle, all those
violations of antiseptic white, all those crumbs ready to float weightless and
clog the pristine machinery of the mothership.
"I can't leave this mess?
headed back to my room. Somehow my
briefcase had made it home. I just
couldn't get rid of the damn thing.
Maybe I was feeling sentimental, but I threw all the debate shit out of
it and started cramming in whatever clothes would fit.
are you going?"
not your decision to make."
packed, debate shit scattered on the floor.
you dare say good-bye."
squeezed past them.
you walk out that door, don't come back."
forbid you to leave this house. There
will be consequences! If you go out that
door, there will be consequences! Do you
bit about actions being louder than words -- there was something to that. Yes, I had officially stopped debating. I really felt that as my feet crossed the
welcome mat, headed the opposite way, into the night, where to? I wondered, my conscious mind that is, because I was
walking toward a destination, my feet knew it, my body knew it, and eventually
my brain caught up, got with the program.
I was walking to Diane's.
then I felt free in the night, hero of a rock song that hadn't been
written. With my briefcase, a spy in the
suburbs, on a mission. My mission.
the end of the yellow brick road I stood outside Diane's yellow brick
house. Her window was dark. Felt foolish and shy. Maybe she would think I was crazy showing up
in the middle of the night. Everyone
else thought I was crazy.
touched the yellow bricks, then touched Diane's window to feel the reality of
it. The glass was cold and my moist
fingerprints lingered on the pane.
on her window.
again. There, I'd tried. Now I could leave, peace with honor.
curtains parted, startling me, a vision of Diane: brown hair spilling over baby
blue peek-a-boo pajama. She slid the
window open. "I was just thinking
about you," she whispered.
I whispered back. To think that she was
thinking about me, that I was inside her head like that, it meant that I meant
something to her.
was amazing, to just not speak. At Nationals!"
was my sincerity speech."
away from home, I guess."
nodded thoughtfully. "How did you
know this was my bedroom?"
watched the other time, after Galveston, when you went inside."
nodded eagerly -- solemnly -- somewhere between the two.
leaned forward on the window sill.
"What did you have in mind?"
didn't expect that question -- I don't know what I expected -- maybe that
whatever was going to happen would happen without questions. She shivered.
"Just teasing. Come on
handed her my briefcase, then scraped against the yellow bricks climbing in --
tore the left knee of my suit pants -- I wasn't a graceful Romeo but I managed
to get inside. Paradise Regained. She shut the window.
suddenly felt shy looking at her; I looked around her room, hungry for details,
clues about her: pale blue walls, a bookcase above her dresser crammed with
Unilateral Military Intervention books, a big oak desk with an Olympia
typewriter and a stack of "Congressional Records." A debater's room. On the wall in front of me was a poster for
"Hair." Another spasm of shyness.
can't believe I'm here."
can't believe you're here."
were we?" I said, trying to pick up the thread. "Yes,
where were we?"
felt incredibly corny. She looked
amused. I hadn't thought this far ahead
because I had never expected to get this far.
What was I waiting for? Me -- I
was waiting for me -- always waiting to solve the problem of me.
never had a boy in my bedroom."
never had a girl in my bedroom."
I've got a boy in my bedroom now."
got me there."
I've definitely got you there, or rather, here."
there we stood. Our two bodies. Somebody had to make a move.
leap of faith across the chasm. I kissed
her. Our first kiss. Finally.
tugged gently on the sleeve on my jacket and I took a chance and shrugged it
off my shoulders and let it fall to a heap to the shag carpet.
there we stood. In her bedroom,
shouldn't it finally be easy? But I
remembered that she was experienced and I wasn't, not Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? but
keep expecting you to say something Benjamin-esque."
like if we crawled out of the sea why can't we crawl back in?"
we were back on the beach." She
touched the top button of my shirt, but shyly, with tentative fingers. "Help me," she said, her voice
small and close and almost lost in the darkness and then my hands touched her
hands and both our hands fumbled my top button open then unbuttoned the next
one and the next one and in the swaying dark I felt like I had either four
hands or none. Then my shirt was off and
I turned a bit sideways, embarrassed by my pale scrawny chest. Her
hands touched me, gently. "You're
very shy for a debater."
I still a debater?"
lifted up her peek-a-boo pajama, to prove her wrong. I had a point to prove about shyness. A silent point made by a silent debater. Diane smiled as she raised her arms and her
smile disappeared under blue cotton and then the pajama top popped free of her
arms and she was naked except for baby blue bikini briefs and a thin gold
necklace with a small gold heart, the hidden charm I had once wondered about,
now revealed. Silent vision of a maiden
at midnight. She hopped into bed, patted
the space next to her, beckoning me to join her under the sheets.
hopped into bed and boldly claimed the spot she offered. I was afraid something would go wrong. Daddy in his Karate-pajamas. Or the Galveston Cops. Or....
so weird." That's the first thing
she said, and I knew that I would never forget it because it was the first
thing a girl ever said to me in bed. It
was like when I stepped back and listened to myself making a speech, I was in
her bed narrating my history to myself as it was happening. Her feet nudged mine. "You didn't even take off your
forgot. In all the excitement."
didn't forget to take all my clothes
off." She tugged at my pants. "Are you still shy?"
took off my shoes and my socks and my pants.
It was just us and our underwear.
And her parents and her two younger sisters somewhere very near. "What if we get caught?"
easy. I'll just say that you raped
then we kissed again. The talking made
the kissing easier. I was too excited
now to narrate, too excited to even realize that I had stopped narrating my
life. I hurtled head-first into the
moment. It felt great. It felt better than thinking.
opened my eyes and saw her eyes were closed as we kissed. I got very curious about what was under her
underwear and she helped me take them off.
And she helped me take mine off and then there was nothing left to take
off. There was nothing between us. Just us.
thought it would be complicated, I would have to read books -- do research --
or take lessons -- but people have been doing it for thousands of years --
millions, actually -- join the club -- there was sex before books -- it was the
one thing that didn't require
research -- and why was I thinking about libraries, stacks of books, at a
moment like this? Was I weird to be
thinking about weird stuff?
you have something?"
"No. But...I know a gas station where I can buy
okay, don't stop."
hadn't started yet. But she wanted me
to. Then I was inside Diane. Her eyes were open and staring into mine.
Withdraw? From Vietnam?
No. From her.
felt so good -- it was all true -- all true --- all -- I was about to -- for
the first time not by my own hand -- by her -- with her -- she breathed into my
ear, into my mouth.
think I need to stop."
then it happened -- I happened -- we happened.
I felt tangled together with her.
Close and faraway were tangled together too.
gave me a different kind of kiss, quick and tender, and said, "I'll be
right back." She eased out of my
arms and out of bed and turned her nightgown from inside out to outside out,
pulled it back on, her body disappearing underneath, and then she disappeared
out the door. Wondered if that meant I
should get dressed too. Would she get
pregnant? Would I have to marry
her? That wouldn't be so bad. Would we live happily ever after? Or was tonight a fluke, just a beautiful
fluke? Maybe she wouldn't even want to
see me tomorrow. Maybe we'd studiously
ignore each other next time we were in the debate shack together. Except I wasn't ever going back to the debate
shack. What was I doing lying alone in
Diane's room, naked in her bed?
was gone a long time.
she wasn't coming back.
she wasn't coming back.
up. Hunted around for my underwear. Decided that I should put my shirt on first,
but kept the blue blanket pulled around me and leaned out of bed to snag my
wrinkled white shirt from the floor.
Could have hopped out of bed and dressed faster but I didn't want her to
see me half-naked and looking ridiculous if -- unlikely -- she ever came back.
"What are you
doing?" Diane. Again.
already?" She climbed back into
but you're dressed."
had to wear my nightgown to the bathroom."
She pulled it back off.
"There. Remember?" She urged me out of my shirt. Then we held each other, like before, but
it okay? I mean, what happened?"
think it'll be okay," she said. She
kissed me again, slower, less urgently.
So many different kinds of kisses, all of them nice.
that or you're a daddy."
my first time...." I wasn't
supposed to let that slip. Virginity was
one of my great dark secrets, but so much had happened I wasn't properly
keeping track of secrets just now.
nodded, touched the little gold heart she wore on the thin gold chain around
her neck, the metal warm from her skin.
Chain of my heart, chain of fools.
first time," she said again, impressed.
I could tell. She laughed and I
didn't mind. "The master
are you going to do now?"
just did it."
left index finger strayed down my chest, bumped up and down tracing my ribs,
teasing. And with my own index finger I
teased back. And we blurred together in
that blurry darkness, teasing, sincerely.
blue light in the window. That was the
first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again.
I couldn't believe that I had fallen asleep -- naked -- in Diane's bed
-- with Diane, also naked. I had slept
in her arms, that were still around me.
I slowly tried to pull away but she clung to me, like a little girl
hanging on to her favorite Barbie, rather, her favorite Guruvy Ken, and then
she opened her eyes and realized it was me and it was dawn.
God," she said.
hurried to get dressed. Out of the
corner of my eye I saw Diane putting her pajama back on, disappearing
underneath it, and that saddened me, that we were dressing, returning to the
privacy of our separate bodies, our separate selves, that saddened me even as I
hurried back into the wreck of my green debate suit: wrinkled, torn, never to
be worn to another debate.
no time it seemed, after that initial panic of waking, we stood facing each
other, dressed, just as we had stood when I'd first climbed into her room.
picked up my briefcase.
are you going?"
know which window to tap on." She
kissed me. "Good night, or rather,
morning." I crawled out the window
and into the cold wet dawn air, like plunging into an icy swimming pool.
had a last kiss as I stood in the dewy Bermuda grass and she leaned on the pale
blue window sill. Neither of us said a
word. Two of us, together, beyond,
deeper than words.
I walked across her yard I looked up at the Technicolor-blue sky, brightening
second by second. I looked back and
Diane was still smiling at me, her head peeking through periwinkle blue
curtains. We waved to each other as I
walked backwards, until she was out of sight.
back for a last peek. And she was still
at the window, smiling. We waved
good-bye again. And blew each other
kisses. I could have said good-bye like
then I really did leave, and she really was gone and it was the morning of the
world right here in Meyerland in Texas on planet earth.
would I go? Home? Step back through the airlock, back into the
had a key to the debate shack and it was Sunday. I could go there, slouch on the couch.
I didn't have to go anywhere. No
timekeeper, no speech, no rebuttal. Just
me, walking along Braes Bayou, swinging my briefcase. I could follow the bayou to the sea, follow
my feet through the world.
walked quickly through the cold dawn and feared nothing. Everyone should have at least a couple of
minutes when they fear nothing.