UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
I had only seen Anthony’s room when it was smoke-filled. It used to be that you walked in to this thick kind of gray film that stretched over your eyes and made everything look like noir movies.
As they carried him out in the stretcher, as they zipped the black-trash-bag over his head, I swear I saw smoke pouring from him. The bag filled with it. And even when he was sealed away, it seeped through the zipper. I could see it filling the ambulance before they closed the doors. I knew if I went with him, we’d ride together in that haze. Where nothing really mattered. Where all that existed were our joints and our eyes floating detached from a world that wanted us detached from it.
I met him at the end of high school. This was during a period I like to call Jennifer. Not Jen. Jennifer. Only idiots were named Jen.
She was so bad she came with a warning.
“Don't do it, man.” Bob mumbled between handfuls of curly fries.
I watched her ass swivel itself across the cafeteria. “Yeah? Why?”
“You let her in and you're gonna hate yourself.” Munch munch munch. There was nothing more unconvincing than a fat kid giving you girl advice.
So I let her in. And, yes, it was a mistake. Don't misunderstand, though, we never did more than kiss.
She pulled away and with a smile I would have thrown myself off a cliff for said, “Oh man, just wait till we start having sex.”
I grinned stupidily and tried not to think what that would cost me.
Either way, the days of Jennifer were at the end of senior year. Within her timeline are my first time smoking pot and my first time drinking. Jennifer initiated both with an irresistible gusto. She watched me like a science experiment.
“You're gonna love this,” she said, again and again. I did, mostly because she said so.
These firsts also included my first meeting with Anthony. Each time I met him, he was either high, on his way to get high, or wishing he was high.
“Dude,” he said, standing on a rock as we gazed out over an unusually scenic bit of the Raritan. “This would be awesome if I were high.”
I remember thinking somewhere in the back of my mind that this was a stupid thing to say. But I had decided saying what I thought was exactly why I’d never been cool. So instead I laughed.
The day I met him he was sober. I knew this was rare because the other people with us would wait until he was out of earshot before leaning over and saying, “Wow, I can't believe Anthony's sober.” I always wished my sobriety were that exciting.
We were walking through the Rutgers Gardens, a segment of Rutgers far enough away from campus to be pretty. It had been my idea, a fact I took great pride in. The day before our walk, I had imagined that everyone would be asking me to show them the choice parts, to explain to them how photosynthesis worked, to instruct them in the ways of the involuntary ascetic. What ended up happening was Anthony leading us through the paths he had blazed on a few drunken benders.
That was Anthony. He pulled off intelligence and charisma in exactly the way I wished I could have. What I treasured, he had. What I wanted, he had. Prime example, he and Jennifer were close friends, which meant they had fucked a few times, but it hadn't worked out. I never found out why it hadn't. All I knew was that Anthony had ended it.
If Enlightenment could actually be obtained, Anthony had it. When he talked people listened. When he wanted to do something, you knew he was going to do it whether or not you wanted to and that made you want to do it more than anything. There was a dignity about him that put him above the normal social bindings that entangled me. And all these things made me hate him.
We left the gardens to go find something to fix our sobriety problem. Jennifer thanked me for coming up with the idea, but I knew she didn't mean it. She had spent the whole time having Anthony point out the various plants that could get you fucked up.
It was only after everyone was stoned that I actually spoke with Anthony.
“Yo man, did we meet?” He didn't say it like a gift, but it felt like one. We introduced ourselves and talked. By talked, I meant Anthony regaled me with stories of the Rutgers Gardens while I sat listening in rapt attention. A few others joined in to laugh or add details, but Anthony was the story-teller. The epicenter of a storm of youthful debauchery.
The night Jennifer turned down the ride, I offered to stay with Anthony. I silently wished every form of impotence on Anthony. I bubbled in my rage right up until the moment he took my hand.
“It was good to meet you, man. Let's hang out again, aight?”
Beneath the ragged shadow of his cap, his eyes glinted with a sincerity that overcame the smoky haze of the room. For a second, I worried that he could see my fantasies of his destruction. But his hand was firm and his gaze was warm. And all I could think was exactly what I said.
Having only recently stepped into the quagmire of social subtleties, I hadn’t learned that most of the time when people say something they don't mean it. And that a good portion of the time they actually mean the exact opposite. Like when Jennifer hugged me after one of the times I had driven forty minutes to get her weed.
“You're a good guy.” Her eyes were as soft as I imagined her breasts would be. I assumed she meant that I was decent, stand-up and date-able. What she actually meant was that she was now aware that I was willing to do whatever she wanted without asking for anything in return. The people she dated she regularly referred to as “assholes”.
But Anthony cut through all that. When he said something, he meant it. I got a call inviting me to hang out from a friend who never invited me to hang out. I found out later Anthony had suggested it. Anthony's suggestion amounted to an order.
We smoked and got into someone's car. I remember thinking of the TV describing this as a terrible idea. But TV giving advice on having a social life strikes me as a bit counter-intuitive. So I followed, giggling the whole way.
At one point Anthony called for the driver to slow down. Anthony almost threw himself out the window to grab a garbage bag left on the curb. He called for us to drive and off we went, dragging the garbage bag along like the loot from a heist. It caught and tore on the ground, littering the Jersey streets with moldy mess. To be honest, the streets wouldn't show the difference. So we each followed suit until we had trashed the better part of the neighborhood.
If Anthony seems at this point a bit conflicted, then I'm doing him justice. He was the better parts of wrath, gluttony and sloth, cut and wrapped in one of those Mexican knit hoodies. There were no words to label him. There were only words for what he was not.
I fell out of contact with Anthony after high school. College hit me like a keg. I found that no matter how weird or awkward you may be, being thrust into close quarters with that many people makes you some friends. All of a sudden I was at parties, meeting people, having bizarre one-night stands that abruptly dislodged from me the idea that a woman needed to be treated like a queen in order to sleep with you.
I buried myself so hard into that world, I forgot who I was. Or who anyone I had known the previous summer was. Jennifer, I found out later, had moved in with a friend who was willing to pay for all her living costs and later, shockingly, asked to sleep with her. She proceeded to move out and live off various other men until she was obscured by a distance I never would cross. But Anthony remained. As his friends moved away or went to school or died of overdoses, he stayed, standing as the last bastion of the bygone hazy high school days.
And he, too, would have faded, had he not reached out to me. One of the many marvels of the Facebook age is its capacity to blindside you with a past you'd rather forget. Anthony wanted to hang out again. I accepted in the same dutiful manner I had accepted everything he had asked for.
Anthony, more accurately Anthony's parents, lived in a little split-level house that would have been nice had the neighborhood not been co-opted as a receptacle for the outcasts of gentrification. A scattering of flickering streetlights did little for the shadows hanging like threats all around the street. When I parked, I locked the doors twice.
His house smelled like air freshener and fish sticks. The lights were off to save money on the electric bill, but the TV was on, bathing everything in the sort of aura that lights horror scenes of B-movies. His parents were there, wedged between the cushions on a couch you'd find on craigslist. I didn't notice them at first since their clothes matched the cushions perfectly.
It was different this time. Anthony’s group was now gone, whittled down two a few stoners who still wore the same ragged baseball caps they had in high school. His room was cocooned in pot smoke and Cheetos crumbs. There was a girl there, too, latched onto Anthony as if trying to draw some of the aura of confidence from him. It wasn't working. Anthony was as he always was, bathed in his smoky majesty that even the dingy room could not darken. The others gathered around him like he was the last light on Earth.
When I came in, he greeted me with an arcane series of handshakes and introduced his friends, all ghosts of various substances that gazed at me glassy-eyed. I felt like I didn't belong. No, I knew I didn't belong. This was a Middlesex-Community-College crowd. This was the working-at-Target-as-a-career crowd. I had moved beyond all that. I bloated myself on that self-confidence, trying to drown the sneaking suspicion that this crowd was still cooler than me. It didn't work.
“So how's things, man? I haven't seen you.” He said with a hand on my back.
“Oh, it's crazy, you know, all the work and stuff. So many people...” I started to describe the experiences that, for me at least, were the most exciting social encounters in the universe.
“Cool, man, that's cool.” He didn't look at me when I spoke. He dipped his head, let the shadow of his cap fall over him like a blanket. For the first time since I met him, I couldn't see his eyes. He looked as though he had broken something.
I cut off my stories with a few y'know’s and yeah, man’s. That look stayed on him for the rest of the night. In fact, thinking of it now, I don't know if that look ever left him.
My life at college went on, assaulting me with exciting new levels of anxiety and disappointment: my first girlfriend that I hadn't met through email, my first breakup, handled with all the grace of a car crash, my first encounter with double-shots and keg stands and the resulting first hospital visit. The layers of my experience dulled my past, pushed out memories of high school summers replaced by memories of debaucherous winters. And I began, again, to forget Anthony.
He asked to hang out once. In fact, he called me himself. I told him I was busy but I would try. The words came from my mouth before I realized it. The impact seemed to make the air waver a moment, as if it was uncertain whether it should continue moving.
“All right, cool man, let me know.” The response sounded as though there hadn't been a long silence before it.
I didn't let him know. Not until the following summer when I realized that college friends are as stable as a buzz. I was left aching and I needed something to fill the social wound college had inflicted.
When I arrived at his house, I found him alone. Anthony, sitting on his bed, playing video games as he waited for me to come in. The aura was still on him. Even alone, he was blissful. Like a smoky Buddha.
“Hey.” He said.
“Hey.” I said.
We played for a while, talking about the game, talking about other games, talking about everything except ourselves. Our lives. How even though we sat a foot away from each other we could barely hear what the other was saying.
I'd never been so thankful for digital media. Video games formed the bridge over which we could cross to each other. We talked about Playstation. Then Playstation 2. Hell, we even discussed the potentials of Playstation 3 the last time we hung out.
Eventually, summer began to wane. I was ready to go back to school, as I had been since summer started. Returning home had made me realize what a dream I was living in college. That real life is being alone amidst thousands of moments you wish you could share. And even when you have someone, chances are they won’t understand what you show them.
That last time I saw Anthony in his room, I knew something had changed. The room was darker. The one lamp he allowed had burnt out. Now the room was like his living room, bathed in the electric glow, all blues and grays. The TV had been turned up. It replaced the sound of his parents arguing with gunshots and explosions.
When he turned, there were shadows under his eyes. In that tattered cap, that faded hoodie and those thrift store sweat pants, I watched him change. Here sat a boy in his parents’ house, oozing the dregs of his old vitality as he smoked his lungs black and turned the volume up to drown out the death throes of his future.
“Hey, man.” A cigarette wilted like a flower in his mouth.
“Hey.” I murmured.
I don't know which of us started talking about games, but I was glad for it. I had learned from college social life that one can drown out unpleasant feelings if one is forced to keep talking. Even so, I spoke haltingly. I was still shy around him. I still wanted to listen. And maybe he needed that. By the time I left, he was glowing again. It was faint, but it was there. And I thought myself a pretty charitable person.
And I continued thinking that right up until he called me again. It was two months later, when I was deeply into school and deeply uninterested in anyone else’s problems but my own. I didn’t recognize the number.
“Yeah. I, uh, lost my cell phone.”
I asked him what was happening more out of vague obligation than interest.
“Not much, you know.” After that, he paused. Most of the time, when Anthony paused, it was because there was truly nothing more appropriate than silence for those few seconds. This time it was like he was holding his breath.
I asked him about games. Had he ever gotten that achievement? What had he unlocked? I suddenly cared intensely about the answers to these questions.
And I thought I heard him laugh. “It doesn’t really matter.” A held breath. “Listen, I just called to say thanks, you know. For hanging with me.”
“Are you OK?”
“It’s-“ A breath in. Held. “It’s all fucked up, man.” Release. “But thanks. I just wanted to say thanks.”
Before I could reply, the line went dead. I sat there for a while just holding my phone, insisting that the world had just paused and I’d hear his voice again if I just gave it time. To this day, I feel I now move faster than I used to. As if to make up for those minutes I let slip by.
The traffic was terrible on the way to Anthony’s. Or, at least, it seemed terrible. It might have just been the horrible nauseous feeling that wrapped itself around me like a heavy quilt making me sweat like the chill fall temperatures shouldn’t have. Everything I had ever done wrong in my life was playing back like bad reruns. It’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you exactly when you need it to shut the hell up.
The door was unlocked as it always was. His parents were gone, vanished into the contours of the couch. His door, on the other hand, was locked like it never was. Smoke seeped from the gap underneath.
I called to him as if his name would deliver him.
I felt silly all of a sudden. Here I was at his door. He was going to open it and fix me with one of those withering stares he used back in high school. I would revert to the me-back-then, shyly tell him I was worried and sorry about that, it was stupid, nevermind, I’d leave.
But he didn’t reply. I regard myself as not a very impulsive person. But desperation has a strange effect on one’s character. I rammed the door again and again until I heard wood crack, metal snap and the whole thing come crashing down.
Smoke billowed out at me, clouded my vision, made my head swim and my nostrils burn. Thinking back, I probably imagined that smoke. My mind playing tricks on me exactly when it needed to.
Because there he was, laid out blue-faced and still holding the joint like a ceremonial dagger. The detective told me what it was laced with, that one puff would have done the trick. But I remember it being mostly gone, still clutched in his hand. That’s how much it took to bring Anthony down. And he lay there smiling. The aura followed him, blue smoke halo that drizzled out of the bodybag, leaked from the coffin and still rises through six feet of soil.
He was an ember of something even death has a hard time snuffing out.
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