"Touch me," she said, so I did, reaching over her Mustang's gear shift to rest just my fingertips on her right thigh like the feet of a water-walking insect. She was wearing black leather pants, their surface oily like snake skin and I closed my eyes for a moment and relished the way her muscles flexed under the thick material as she gunned her car up the tortuous two lane road winding up Heaven Hill. I remembered reading somewhere that, in pre-Christian Europe, sages who practiced haruspicy, the art of reading animal entrails, used to cast animal guts onto the ground and the rulers of the land would chart roads based on how the intestines fell and that's why some older European roads are still so convoluted. Ada interrupted my thoughts by placing a hand on mine and pushing down, then dragging my hand up to her hip where her pants had folded over themselves in small, slick ridges. "Are you feeling okay?" she asked.
"I'm great." I was lying. I was hoping her car would break down and we would never arrive at the Halloween party at the old firehouse. I didn't want to pay $15 and bob for apples and make conversation with strangers. But Ada wanted to go and I never get to date girls like Ada, girls with pierced nipples who wear leather pants to fire department benefits and say things like "Touch me" so brazenly. As the firehouse loomed into view at the top of the hill, Ada pulled peach schnapps from below her seat and took a drink.
The firehouse was big. Ivy framing tall windows. The big, empty garage where fire engines used to park. Dumpsters full of broken furniture. Volunteer firefighters had hung fake cobwebs, set up punch tables, cheese and cracker tables, and fog machines blasting inward, toward the back wall of the garage. I wondered if the artificial fog was toxic, if we'd all asphyxiate before they could announce the costume contest winner. Ada interrupted my thoughts by handing me the bottle of schnapps and I took a long swallow while she parked. I don't usually drink, but Ada's leather was warm under my hand in her car's heated interior and her skin smelled like the promise of crazy, claw-my-fucking-skin-off sex. I was full of hope, so I'd resigned myself to doing things I don't normally do, like drinking, like costume parties.
Costumed people drifted back and forth across Ada's rearview: cowboys, cats, TV characters, vampires, zombies, French maids. I wondered why Americans had come to associate France with sexual impropriety: French kiss, French tickler. I imagined that housekeepers all across Europe probably wore comparable uniforms, but if an American woman dons a particularly revealing maid outfit, it's recognized that she's emulating a housekeeper employed in France. Not Germany, not Italy, not Spain. France equals perversity in the American idiom in an inflexible one-to-one correlation much like Native America equals dissemblance and falsehood: Indian giver, Indian summer.
After checking her makeup in her visor mirror, Ada climbed out and I followed her across a gravel parking lot. Before we'd taken five steps, she was already waving to a group of her friends standing on the expansive firehouse driveway smoking. I grabbed for her hand, trying to stake my claim before anyone else could talk to her, but her hands were busy lighting a cigarette held between her black-painted lips, so I kept pace behind her, watching floodlights float down her pale shoulders.
Her friend Ben, the volunteer firefighter who had invited her to the party, dressed tonight like a cowboy, was waving Ada over. She smiled. It's difficult to explain, but I hate volunteer firefighters. I guess it's their arrogance, the brags that spill from them. The unconcealed will to power of firefighters, cops, and soldiers, the way they conspicuously bifurcate themselves from the general populace, protector and protected, uniformed and civilian, armed versus unarmed. What Nietzsche calls the warrior class. These feelings of dissent hit boiling point as we walked towards the driveway, becoming a frantic voice in the back of my mind. This voice, like a doddering professor in the midst of a deconstructive lecture, kept muttering as we walked, quietly raging against anyone more powerful or more likely than me to seduce Ada. Stopping at the edge of the driveway, we greeted her friends Ben, Maggie, Stef, and Gallagher. I'd met Ben, Stef, and Gallagher two weeks ago, the same night I'd met Ada. Also the night I'd tried cocaine for the first time, just a dab of it like the amount of sugar spilled from the spoon between sugar dish and coffee cup, while Ada had snorted lines like national borders from the back cover of Spin. She was asleep on Gallagher's couch in no time, while, for my peccadillo, I suffered a night of insomnia, alphabetizing my book collection with shaking hands.
Ben had tried to seduce Ada that night. So had Gallagher. But she liked me because I was stable, impressive, and smart, an accountant for a Fortune 500 company, because I was successful while she was tending bar on weeknights. We went to a movie a week after meeting. During the previews, she gave me her standard caveat for potential boyfriends, telling me that she suffers from many disorders including Borderline Personality, Major Depressive, anorexia, not to mention frequent suicidal ideation. She'd been wearing a short, blue plaid skirt. I kissed her forehead and told her I didn't mind. She'd smiled and kissed me softly on the lips. Our relationship or whatever it was had gone no further since then.
As we approached Ben and his friends, he was smiling at Ada hungrily. Gallagher was looking elsewhere and I imagined that Ben had told him to back off after their bickering over Ada two weeks ago had propelled her into my arms. The way Ben leered at her. His arms crossed expectantly across his chest, waiting for her to come to him. His tasseled vest like he was John fucking Wayne. Symptoms of narcissism. Undoubtedly, he would soon have Ada giggling at some inane joke and, over the course of the evening, would gradually draw her away from the group. She would touch him too much. He would slip an arm around her when she stumbled over gravel in her heels, but would leave his arm there after she'd regained her balance. She wouldn't protest. He wouldn't look to me for consent. A life-long depressive, she would be flattered by his attention. Her admiration would, in turn, fuel his narcissistic desire. Eventually, he would invite her to some remote room in the firehouse to which only he held a key. I'd be watching from down some dark hallway as an unmarked door locked itself behind them.
While Ben was ogling Ada, Stef, dressed as a cheerleader, was watching Ben. Possibilities suggested themselves to me. Maybe they'd driven to the party together. Maybe in the dark car, she'd asked him to touch her. Maybe the way her eyes stuck to him portended a fear of rejection, of abandonment. Maybe this would compel her to distract him from Ada.
Except that while Stef was watching Ben, Gallagher was watching Stef. Hungrily. Gallagher was dressed like Ronald Reagan in an expensive suit, the wrinkled rubber mask hung around his neck facing backwards into the forest behind the firehouse. He was lighting a cigarette from the ember of his last one. Why did he need to dress like a powerful man? It was an omen of overcompensation, a symptom of an inferiority complex. In that case, to use Stef's body, to transform her corporeality into a metaphorical notch on his metaphorical bedpost, would be beyond desire for him, would be nothing less than a teleological necessity.
In the midst of this libidinal cocktail, I would undoubtedly spend the chilly evening surrounded-but-alone, silently watching these four joke and exchange glances, watching Ben pursue Ada, Ada comply, Stef pursue Ben, Gallagher pursue Stef. I would dredge my imagination for something witty to say, but would be outpaced by their lightning retorts and enjoinders, would be left to attempt conversation with Maggie, who was dressed as Frieda Kahlo in all-covering dress and glued-on unibrow, who was looking at her feet rather than risk ogling anybody, her arms crossed over her chest. She looked bored. She looked boring. Socially anxious. I could see myself spending the evening standing next to Maggie, neither of us smiling, discussing the weather, commenting on how many people had turned out to support the fire department, then lapsing into foot-shuffling silence, picking at loose threads on our costumes. I was wearing fake fangs and a black, high-collared cape over a black t-shirt and jean, a pathetic attempt at a vampire.
Ada and I took one last step up onto the driveway. Ada exhaled cigarette smoke from her nostrils. Ben thanked us for coming and collected our money. He wouldn't look at me even as he was pulling bills from my loosening grip.
Maybe I should have said something to him. Maybe put my arm around Ada or whispered in her ear. Maybe challenged Ben to a duel. Maybe a better man would have just wordlessly punched him. Or wordlessly murdered Ada like Othello did Desdemona. But I'm a coward. I've never been one to valiantly protest iniquity. I'm happier to scurry to a hideaway and convince myself that I would've loaned the proverbial schoolyard bully my proverbial lunch money anyway, so I didn't mind that the money had been taken from me by force. All I did was ask Ben where the drinks were and, when he pointed to a long table against the back wall of the garage, I said "I'm going to get a scotch." I never drink scotch, but at that moment it sounded like something impressive and fortifying. I asked Ada if I could get her anything, but she was busy laughing at something Gallagher had said. Maggie gave me a sympathetic smile, watching Ada ignore me, then watching me stride away from the group towards the punch table. I wished that Ben had given bad directions to the party and that Ada and I were still driving around in her car looking for the firehouse, never to find it.
The punch table against the back wall of the dimly-lit firehouse brought to mind an altar at the back of a cathedral, the firehouse's walls stretching boxily towards heaven. Overhead lights reflected temptingly from a big punch bowl and a long line of glass bottles, but the table was so crowded by costumed people that it would be a trial to push my way through to it. Two girls—one in a bumblebee costume, the other dressed like a sailor—leaned back against the table laughing. A man with an antique hockey mask dangling from his neck was pouring shots of vodka and pointing to people in the crowd, demanding that they join him in a toast to whatsoever.
I wouldn't be able to just walk in, pour a drink, and escape. I would have to wedge my way between heavily makeupped women and red-faced men to get to the table and the men would crack jokes or shout at me or slap me on the back with Dionysian encouragement and the women would watch me through their black eye shadow, tacitly daring me to flirt with them, letting me know with their haughty split-second glances that I had been instantaneously, yet thoroughly, weighed and found lacking. Squeezing through that throng of celebrants alone, how could I help but feel like a trespasser? Then, once at the punch table, I would have to come up with witty responses to whatever comments the hockey-masked man made and the sailor girl and the girl dressed like a bee would watch smugly as I struggled to pass myself off as someone who belonged there. They would know better, would see that I was counterfeit.
I turned back around to look to Ada for encouragement, but she and Ben had intertwined their fingers and were giggling at each other while Stef, Maggie, and Gallagher watched with what seemed to me from a distance to be mostly beneficent approval and partly envy. I turned back around, but the punch table was even more crowded than it had been moments before. It was even more likely that once the crowd perceived my shyness, my desperation to withdraw from their exhausting excitement, once they perceived that weakness, that constitutional flaw, the smoldering fear in me, I would be ridiculed, ostracized, rejected like an ill-suited transplant organ, an inflamed, blotchy kidney.
Neither Ada nor Ben nor Stef nor Gallagher nor Maggie were paying me any notice, so I dashed off the pavement and into the darkness of the surrounding lawn and kept walking until I'd reached the edge of the forest that surrounded the firehouse on three sides. At the edge of the forest, there was a caveman pissing behind a bush. There was a fishnetted cop and black-and-white-striped prisoner, handcuffed together, kissing against a tall oak. I kept walking and soon enough I was alone in the woods, the roar of the Halloween party reduced to a small din behind me, faint enough to serve as an indispensible, yet ignorable, homing beacon.
The trees around me were gray ghosts, more like the standing shadows of trees than actual trees. My eyes hadn't adjusted to the gloom yet and I could see neither my hands nor my feet. I stood still, just thinking. I was mere existence. I was Descartes, stranded on a solipsistic island of my own construction. I was at least temporarily the transparent eye that Emerson describes, being nothing, seeing all, disembodied consciousness. Temporarily, I was aware of nothing but that I existed and I was, for reasons I embarrassingly could no longer recall, standing in the dark woods alone when I was supposed to be at a party.
The first sensation to penetrate my mind's self-imposed exile was that of frigidity. The forest was freezing. I became existentially aware, whereas before I understood only intellectually, why people were crowded into the heated firehouse, venturing out onto the wind-chilled driveway only when struck by the need to smoke. But the evening's chill could be overcome just like any other discomfort. What must be overcome is not the external fact, but the internal response to the fact. When one is cold, one's immediate response is to seek warmth. One is hopeful that one will find comfort from the cold. The first step to surviving a cold evening, then, is to lose hope. Once the desire for change is driven from the body, once the body accepts that its situation will not be improved, then the body dutifully redirects its energy toward endurance.
Careful not to look up at the quarter moon or to stare for too long at the distant lights of the party, my eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. I found that despite having blundered into the woods blindly, I had wandered into a propitious clearing of soft ground crossed by a couple of fallen trees, their limbs all hacked away as if God Himself had placed two benches there in the clearing with no purpose outside of providing for my future comfort. Tall evergreens stood protectively in a loose ring around me. A few centuries earlier, I would have praised God, built a cabin there in the clearing, spilt Indian blood, and planted corn in unending rows.
My own existence, though, was post-God, post-agricultural, utterly suburban. The warfare I was waging was not one for physical survival or material dominance; it was a spiritual battle, a metaphysical secession. I would, I thought, drag a foot through the dirt in a circle along my green ring of trees in my clearing and allow none to enter. And my kingdom would be called Dogmatica; I would crouch there in the safety of the dark forest and would be safe from betrayal, ridicule, and indifference. I wished that I had a pack of cards on me; I would have sat down in the dirt and played a game of War against myself, dividing the deck into two piles and then repeatedly flipping over two cards simultaneously, alternately awarding victories to my left hand or right hand, until it was time for Ada to drive me home. Then, with the evening drawing to a close, I would swaggeringly reappear and regale Ada and Ben with stories of the infinite shots I'd taken with a caveman, a prisoner, and a slutty cop; I'd express my surprise that they hadn't bumped into me as I'd been right in the firehouse garage the whole time; and I'd make Ada jealous with my account of how the cop kept laying her hand on my arm, how when her prison-garbed boyfriend walked off to piss, she'd proposed oral sex in the woods behind the station, but how I'd declined because I was there at the party with Ada. Like Alexander the Great, Dogmatica would be my Macedon, my seat of power from which I would launch my assault upon Ada's heart.
Just then, I became conscious of a rhythmic crunching noise from somewhere in the forest, the sound of leaves being crushed under approaching footsteps. The sound grew progressively louder and I turned around just as Maggie entered the clearing. Fearful of tripping over a root, she stepped gingerly, but unapologetically through the speculative border between Dogmatica and Reality. Her unibrow had come unstuck and was slanting to one side. Her eyes were dull and glassy. I could hear more footsteps behind her. My god, I thought with an urgency approaching panic, I'm under attack. "Hey," Maggie called as she approached, "I thought I saw you stomping out here. Ada's worried about you. What are you doing?"
"Oh!" I answered. "Ummmmm..."
Then Ada and Ben galumphed arm in arm into the clearing behind Maggie. Ada's hair was wild, thick strands of it falling across her face like a black veil. A brown leaf was stuck in a fold of leather around one ankle. As they came to a halt beside Maggie, Ben, chuckling, slipped an arm around Ada's waist. His eyes gleamed. In England, around the time they were having their civil war, when it became known to the citizens of a village that a man among them had been cuckolded by his wife, the whole village would gleefully inform the man of this fact by parading around his home, singing bawdy ballads, and sometimes further humiliating the man by forcing him to parade with them wearing antlers or "cuckold's horns." Ben didn't have to parade or sing. One arm around Ada said everything he had to say, but, for good measure, his eyes seemed to be shouting satiric lyrics as well. "Hey you!" Ada called to me, lips parting in a wide smile. Then, with practiced ease, she stepped free of Ben's arm, freeing me at the same time from the torture of the volunteer firefighter's silent gloating. "Where have you been?"
"Oh! Ummmmm..." I found myself thinking back to college, thinking back to an old roommate I hadn't thought of in years. I think he works for Merrill Lynch now, but back then he was a stoner, a drunk, a partier, a chaser after women. How had he spoken when he was fucked up? How when he used to roll out of bed at 3pm with a cocaine hangover and a yarn to spin about the girl he'd fucked the night before? What vocal inflections, what words would he use? "Oh man!" I cawed, trying to soberly affect slurred speech. I scratched at the back of my head and shrugged my shoulders repeatedly, trying to mimic my old roommate's tics and idiosyncrasies. "I was taking shots and I came out here to piss, but then I just kept walking! How did you find me? I think I made out with some chick, too!"
Maggie, Ben, and Ada nodded solemnly. They knew I was lying, but they were pretending to believe me. Was I that fragile? Ada looked worried. Ben was stifling a grin. Maggie looked bored. They all kept nodding. After a long silence, I asked, "Where's Gallagher and Stef?" They shrugged. Ada looked more worried, her eyes narrowed, studying me as if I were a loose thread poking out from a sweater, threatening to unravel the whole thing. I realized I hadn't altered my speech on my last question, had spoken soberly when mere moments ago I'd been feigning out-of-my-mind fucked-upness. I cast around in my mind for another topic of conversation, anything to divert attention from myself, but I couldn't think of anything.
At first it felt like an intrusion, a violation of my trust, that these people would stalk into my domain unwelcomed. But then I felt ashamed that I would think of creating a liminal, imaginary space that forbade encroachment when I should be enjoying the party, welcoming the party's particulate commingling of lives and consciousnesses and the abandon of the intentional self-poisoning of alcohol. I was embarrassed. I looked at Maggie and shrugged helplessly, trying to play the part of the loveable goofball. Maggie's unibrowed gaze slid away from mine, toward Ada, who was still studying me while Ben's eyes slid sideways, peripherally capturing the view down Ada's constrictive lace top. I watched Ada watching me for a long, silent moment, then shrugged again, feeling lost. Ada continued to study me and shook her head, but then began to giggle, a sound of innocence and pleasure that was almost incongruous with her Halloween garb and black lips. Had she come to the woods, not to judge, but to rescue me? I began to laugh, too, at both the unexpected propitiousness and absurdity of the situation. What was I doing in that forest? With Ada smiling at me, it was hard to fathom. Ada continued to shake her head at me, but not in disapproval or disavowal; her countenance was one of disbelief, but also benign amusement. She brushed her hair from her face, suspicion evaporating from her eyes like dew from a windowpane.
What was it? The way I shivered, suffering in the cold night air? Was it pity that stayed her tongue, prevented her from hurling words at me that she must have had ready for attack: pathetic, awkward? Was it the implicit promise of driving to the party together and the assumption that we would also be leaving together and, if so, what had been promised, by whom, and what had been assumed? Was it just the way that my tremulous hand had felt on her thigh as she pumped the accelerator up Heaven Hill? Had she seen something in my eyes, some need or esurience and, if so, was my desire, was what I lacked, mirrored or balanced somewhere in her?
Who cares? All I knew was that somehow, by some inconceivable process, some esoteric swerve in the clockwork of the universe, I had wandered into the woods and arrived at this moment, Ada smiling at me warmly, laughing as she shimmy-stepped forward and took my hand in hers. "Come on, silly," she said, her hand warm and soft against my cracked skin. Maggie looked away, out into the interminable darkness of the forest. Ben rolled his eyes and sniffed loudly. I pretended to be oblivious of their judgment. Hand in hand, I followed Ada through spectral trees, back towards the party, back into the light.