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The Abyss Inside MAG
Napa slides by outside the smudges on the window. Classic farm country with the works: a tire swing, fields of grass swaying in waves, regal trees begging to be climbed, and a conservative-slant newspaper in every driveway. The music flowing from my headphones is soothing, encouraging reflection, going perfectly with the scenery.
Stephen interrupts me, a ruffle of my hair from the seat behind me. My building thought process is suspended, but the music helps me be patient. I thank it silently. Then I turn and rest my chin and folded hands on the back of my seat as I pull my headphones down around my neck.
He asks, “What’s bothering you?” I can tell by his voice he’s just returned from a journey into himself. Now I turn off my iPod. I get the feeling I won’t need its help after all. I lean back in my seat, failing to find a comfortable position, and am reminded of the San Francisco trip when I fell asleep and had a cramp so bad I could hardly walk the next day.
I mull over replying “You” and decide the joke would be more abrasive than the fragility of thought could stand, at the moment.
I respond simply: “Nothing.”
He was ready for that one. “Well, what were you thinking about?” Stephen is one of those who’s always wondering what you’re thinking.
I hadn’t even started my “thinking” yet, but his anticipation, and the conversation I know will follow, get me going. I gaze out the window, aware of how I look, making sure to get exactly the right effect. Eyes distant, jaw squared: “I wish I were a Huck Finn sort of character.”
This time, I’ve dumbfounded him. To him, the book was another inane school assignment to do halfway the night before it’s due. “Huck Finn? What d’you mean?” His voice makes it clear I was right to think the name was what displeased him.
In fact, it’s the “character” part that’s really important. I get into the details, careful to say what I mean, this time: “I guess there’d be a river – no, a creek – that I’d run along, and get into all kinds of trouble. I’d be a hoodlum. A rapscallion.”
Now he’s with me. He responds through his fingers, as he chews the nail on his pinky. I make a mental note to ask him why he wears that ring on his left-hand ring finger. “Oh!” he bursts, after a moment of imagining. And for him, and his excitement at this moment, I know he means “Eureka!” It’s because we’re explorers, really. And we’re on the verge of a really big discovery.
I go on. “I’d climb trees, and adventure through farms, and pretend sometimes to be a wrinkly old Indian chief, and I’d get one of those unfinished-looking straw hats, and sometimes sit on a footbridge and see if the fish are biting.”
Stephen is about to add a few details, but the bus turns a corner into the sudden light of a stunning sunset. In place of the half-opened mouth, a smile fills his face that reminds me of his younger brother.
In the sunset are purple clouds, green farms, sunbeams, grapevines, breezes, dreams. Neither of us can resist looking into such a beautiful abyss. But the sun eventually fades behind another hill, and we continue in the excitement of darkness.
“I’d carve our initials into a tree.”
Stephen had still been trying to peek over the glowing hill. “Who?”
“My girlfriend. We’d be one of those cute, awkward young couples. I’d carve our initials in a heart on a tree, in our secret hiding place. That whole cliché – all of it. We’d really be happy with each other, more than either of our parents, but – ” I search the empty bottle rolling down the aisle for a “but.” “Something tragic would happen. A tumor, or something.”
Stephen tells me he doesn’t think that’s cliché at all, but I know the darker twist is what really has him. He’s a drama kid, an actor, and he’s always pleading with Mrs. Neace to drop the comedy and do “something darker.”
I’m on a roll now. Stephen’s fingernails are practically fading away into nothingness. He’s excited.
But I’m already running out of ideas about my childhood, I realize. “I couldn’t be too good in school. I’d have to somehow get sucked into events beyond my control. Oh, and this is in the South, of course. Not California. Maybe Georgia.”
Stephen makes a face at the digression, but I continue, with only a brief pause.
“I think I’d end up in the CIA. Yeah, something like that. Y’know, work for the government, shady business. I’d get sucked into schemes, and betrayals, and plot twists, and of course I’d have the I’m-just-a-kid-from-Georgia-what-am-I-doing-here moment.” All that with excitement, but still at a pace cautious enough that I can see it’s driving Stephen mad.
There’s a long silence here, interrupted only to make a joke about the house with a Young Democrat mailbox next door to a house with a conservative mailbox and a ten-foot cross in the lawn, topped unabashedly with a pair of dusty antlers. Our voices ring brightly in the air, until dominance shifts back to our eyes, which watch the setting of my new life roll by.
I urge my eyes away from the ocean of vines to glance at Stephen, and see that his face is contorted in thought. He’s into the downward slope, and I look back every few minutes to make sure the conversation rekindles when it’s ready.
Once his eyes see again, he continues my story on his own, the tone of his voice much changed. “Years later, you’ll come back home, and things will be different. The old place you used to take girls for ice cream will be gone.” He invents a name. “The road out to Samson’s will be paved. You won’t remember where that tree you carved your girlfriend’s initials is. Someone will have died.” He searches for a victim. “Your dog, maybe. You’ll feel distant.”
The longing, aching, nostalgic feeling reminds me of summer nights on the porch with my harmonica. Of that after-dinner glow we occasionally share with 10 or 12 close friends, after gorging ourselves at that Indian restaurant with the scuffed green walls. Of watching for shooting stars from the trampoline at midnight, letting the silence speak for us. But as I bathe myself in that feeling, I love the way that black umbrellas and lined-up Cadillacs go along with it.
“My mom will die, I think.”
Stephen nods. He knows me well enough to realize I wouldn’t reject one of his ideas if I hadn’t thought it through. He didn’t like the dog much anyway, I can tell. His starts to shift into that reflective lull that comes after a creative frenzy, a process we’re both very familiar with – together and separately.
I feel like there’s a little bit more here, though. “I think I’d live a quiet life. I’d meet a nice old woman in her garden one day, invite her for wine on Sunday afternoons, and finally marry.” At that, I smile. “Live quietly and simply. Maybe write, teach people from the experiences I’ll have had. I’ll be one of those old guys who sits on his porch, and lives for when the teenager next door and his kid sister come over to listen to one of his stories. I’ll have a title with them.” I laugh a short, quiet laugh to myself. “Uncle,” I say. I check to make sure the comment has the right effect.
He grins. I get the feeling he thinks I’m just making an anti-climactic joke, until he doesn’t honor the after-creation silence: “That really fits your character.”
Christ, what a thing to say.
We go on to talk about the way our friends – another word for the people you accidentally associate with during high school – have images in their heads of who they want to be, and wonder that anyone could want so little. Stephen’s just gone through a major breakup, and is in a particularly pessimistic phase.
But by the time I’m turned back around again, and my earphones are back in my ears, I’ve already thought up a better reflection to enjoy in my own after-creation. I realize that the difference between what most people need is almost negligible, and that makes me realize that even similar people can want very different lives for themselves. And if that’s true, despite what seems more logical, what someone wants is a much more accurate measure of their true self than what they need.
And I know that what I want is likely to change, maybe a lot. But I also know that what I want, what I really want, has nothing to do with cars or mansions or even the phrase “three bedroom, two bath.” It has nothing to do with being the coolest companion there ever was to a cigarette, and it has nothing to do with being the frat kid who goes through condoms the fastest. I realize that you can’t judge a person by who you think they are, because to learn who they really are would be a more-than-lifelong pursuit. I realize that it’s hard even to understand yourself, but that by writing myself a character to become, that by looking at the world as a novel to be written, I can take a big step toward the sunset inside myself.
The music reaches a climax, and I become aware of it again. I rest my temple against the window, careful to get just the right longingly pensive look to my eyes, and watch the rows of crops align in fast-forward as we fly by.
And the quiet school bus traces a yellow path through the still-adolescent wine of the provocative Sonoma night.