“I know you’re not really a huge fan of them, but I’m sorry,” she said from behind the wheel. “Tonight’s a Radiohead night.”
She was right, at the time. But that night it made little difference to me. I could see where she was coming from, and even back then I had a hard time complaining when “My Iron Lung” was on the stereo. I cracked the passenger side window to let in some summer dusk, and put my free hands to use around the pliant neck of my imagined guitar. It was the only instrument I really knew my way around, but I looked smooth and polished as an MTV closeup as I synced my diving hair and fluid arms to the chords.
Twisting a knob between us, she turned down my daydream as we approached the drive-thru window, so better to speak with the fluorescent tableau of fake fish and comestible cancers to her left. The vocal menu and its attendants stocked our laps accordingly, and we soon returned to the suburban bends beyond the backdrop treeline.
There we found our empty home, filled with other people’s trinkets, furniture, and three-legged dog. It was really only empty — and ours — thanks to the weekend absence of those other people, middle-aged and mortgaging. They had entrusted the house and its hobbled guardian to the more capable stewardship of Marie, paying her some plum sum to keep a lonesome and responsible watch over things. But she had bent the rules a bit, inviting me along last minute to keep her company for a stretch of the long and boring night ahead.
Boring in theory, anyway. In practice it was the kind of summer evening that seemed lit from within, somehow free of the dim unease such quiet nights can bring. That’s to what I had quietly accredited the subtle luminescence of our twilight drive, but it lingered even as we escaped the falling night between those four unfamiliar walls. As the lights flickered on to greet us, it felt sort of like walking out of a minute coma and back into matrimony — a happy home filled with friend-given gifts from a wedding I couldn’t remember, sofas and blinders from a trip to Sears well forgotten.
This, of course, would make Marie my wife, and as we had only ever been friends I had to doubt that those housewarming lights evoked in her the same wordless feeling. Subverbal thoughts quickly passed as my attention turned to one-leg-less Petey, who filled the sad space left by his limb with all the love and bonhomie he could muster. We returned his wagging advances with adulation and porcine fries inbetween bites of the spoils we had nabbed from whatever local additive landfill Marie least disdained, then slid our way into the basement, where a superior television set would entertain the DVD she had brought along.
The film was high school era Marie in a TLA clamshell, some dry documentary about a couple of eccentric and crusty sisters who lived in a doddery squat someplace Welsh or British — just quirky enough to earn them thrift store video shelf syndication. I liked it fine, and once the credits had commenced we must have talked it over a bit as we sat on sub-street level carpeting. At one point or another I perused the bookshelves of audio documents the real Man of the House had collected — live bootlegs of bands like Tool, Dave Matthews Band, and other mainstream-cum-subculture groups that have inspired many middle-aged and disposably incomed former musicians to dedicate secret corners of their suburban reformatories to shrine-like archives. The carefully penned performance dates and venue names were interesting, for a time, before ceasing to be.
Sometime around the latter clause Marie disappeared from the room, and I turned my attention to the cheap, fingertrap magic of her vacant chair. It was magic because it had no legs, only the stiff plastic seat and back support, but by sitting in it on the floor one could be effectively suspended in animation. It was cheap because, like a Chinese fingertrap, its magic didn’t defy but rather relied upon forces of nature (gravity, the golden corporal ratio) in order to work, and looked like flimsy crap in the meantime. Bored and still alive in a world some two years removed from phone-sized Internet access, I decided to try an experiment and place my head upon it, as though it were a pillow. This wasn’t comfortable, or unboring, but it worked. A few moments later Marie returned, and decided to try an experiment of her own, sitting back down in her chair without first asking me to remove my head from its corner.
This also worked, and solved everything my weak scientific inquiry hadn’t. Somehow she had managed to sidle herself in with one smooth motion, and suddenly my head was in her lap, my hair cushioned by her dress on one side and being gently sieved by a little hand on the other. Like so many other young men with a lot of hard typewriter nights in their weekends past and future, I managed to remain eluded by the obvious intentions behind her gesture, almost forcibly on my part. A ton of lovely chances fell into my lap during high school, and I let most of them slip, for all the strangest non-reasons.
But now that chance had fallen into hers, she seemed to know what to do. Her taste in guys had probably afforded her some experience parsing damaged boy code, and she cracked my half-hid hesitance with accordant fluency. Soon we traded that tacky almost-chair for the floor, our limbs entwined and our eyes set to the Spielberg sci-fi unfolding onscreen. That I felt comfortable enough to lean over her shoulder and interrupt her lips in the middle of some witty quip about aliens was a testament to her skill.
Our brief time together remains unique in my mind for how entirely innocent it felt. No clothes were removed, and all we did was kiss. But there was something especially intimate to it, as if we had in fact found our way to that domestic twilight zone parallel, however distantly, to the typical teen reality we shared. By the time we looked at a clock it was almost daybreak, and I remember sitting on the couch in the first floor living room, the sun beginning to coat the smaller, daytime TV screen in its reflected glare as she lay on my lap, bundled up and smiling peacefully in a shallow sleep.
“Wait a minute,” she said, behind the wheel again, watching the train pull away for the city without me. “I think there’s another station close to here that’s got one coming soon.” It must have taken some time to rouse ourselves from the empty home, shuffle into the car and get moving, but it felt as fast as snapping the spine of a dream.
“No worries,” I assured her, opening my door. “I don’t mind a wait.”
She insisted, and removed her foot from the brake with finality. Not to be outdone, I swung my legs out the open door and dropped my feet to the moving ground, the rubber soles of my off-brand Dunks screaming dramatically against the asphalt. She relented, shouted that I was crazy, and with a smile requited my farewell.
I wasn’t so sure what was going to happen next at the time, but that imaginary plane we shared was not to be repeated or realized — and for a long time, we never spoke a word of it. But for just as long, something new played inside her eyes every time they met mine. Our friendship found its way through the night to that delicate place where it could stand enriched, not in ruins, by having moved just briefly beyond that threshold — as if there were some sweet knowledge between us that most great friends seldom can or get to share. The fact that we have now each written pieces about it means something, though I can’t be quite sure exactly what — I’ve never read hers.
Of course, after she joined my band to lend us her voice at high school’s end, things wound up getting more complicated. Just a couple months later, we wouldn’t even be on speaking terms anymore, and she blamed Jack — her “replacement” — for the death of our friendship. She had said as much to Jack herself.
But she was wrong about that. It wasn’t Jack who had been responsible for my fallout with Marie, but none other than that sad, bright-eyed boy Lupin.