Monday, July 19, 2004

An Exorcism, part 1

Note from the author: Telling this story is an act of exorcism. While it is based on something true, it is fiction. But it's the worst kind of story. It's the kind that visits at four o'clock in the morning when you'd rather be sleeping and insists that it really happened, the kind you almost believe is true, the kind that won't let you go back to sleep even once you're finally awake enough to know it's a just a more appealing version of a larger story that is much more painful. My hope is that by telling this story it will, finally, just leave me alone. p.s. It's nearly unforgiveably long. 
The first time he realized he'd loved her all those years ago, was one afternoon much later, as he sat in his booth, lonely, staring at the door of the bar in a city thousands of miles away from home. He was picking at all the loose ends in his past, wondering if life could have been different, and feeling awash in an uncharacteristic wave of homesickness. He and his wife had called it quits and this time he thought it was finally final, and overdue. The city they'd been living in for the last eight years felt foreign. The door to the bar opened and the noise and smells of Philadelphia poured in. He longed for the quiet hills of El Dorado County, and the familiar crawl of small-town Placerville. He tipped the cold bottle in his hand and held the beer in his mouth for a moment, moving his tongue through it, reminded unaccountably of his Grandma's lemonade, and with it a flood of forgotten memories of Thea.
He and Thea had been in classes together for two years, but they did not speak to each other until the last month of high school -- until their history teacher put them on a debate team together. They knew of each other, had friends who were friends, and had taken note of the other's visual appeal. But there had been no outside energy pushing them past recognition into knowledge until Mr. Whiteneck forced them together. Josh was surprised by how funny and smart she was and he liked that she thought he was, too. She had long dark hair and deep dimples and shining eyes when she smiled. They had very different views of the world, and harassed each other about their conflicting opinions. The month they'd had to work together on the final debate, they had flirted constantly, without flirting.
At the time he was still dating Amy, his girlfriend of two years, but he had plans to free himself up for his last "hurrah," as he'd begun to think of the coming summer. It surprised him, the first time he wondered what it would be like to kiss Thea, and afterwards, that he thought about it a lot.
After he broke up with Amy, he started calling Thea everyday. They kissed for the first time the night of graduation. They'd spent the day together, she at his family's celebration, and then he at hers, ostensibly as friends. She was going to drive them to the ceremony and they left the party at her house early because they were going to go climb an oak tree first. They'd been discussing the plan for a week, at Thea's insistence. They needed to do something, she said, that made the day real. There was a perfect tree in a back field of Thea's uncle's horse ranch. They crawled up as high as they could and, perched amid rattling leaves, passed a beer back and forth, talking about the impossibility, it seemed, that high school was finally over and all that might mean. Afterwards, they had rushed to the school and ended up sitting with each other at the back of the auditorium, because they had arrived too late to get into line with their other friends. She drove him home afterwards, and while the engine idled, he'd asked to kiss her. Her lips had been even softer than he'd imagined. And when she kissed back, he felt like he'd fallen through a plate of glass. She left town the next day for four weeks, a long visit with family back east. They planned a date for when she got back.
Also as planned, he fooled around a lot while she was gone. He was joining the Marines at the end of the summer. His recruiter had promised that he'd find it "a hit with the ladies" to be a Marine recruit. And he'd been right. Josh had plans to explore that effect to its fullest that summer, but missing Thea was distracting. After she returned they saw each other frequently, more than once a week. They talked more than that, but not too much to disrupt his plans for the summer.
One afternoon after Thea had returned, he and his Grandma were having an unusually long and good afternoon together. They were sipping lemonade, talking about all that was about to change now that he was "a man." His Grandma had raised him after his parents, who had never married – they had been so young -- had both left him to seek their own lives. He saw his mother a couple of times each year and she was too much a gypsy for Josh to long for her very often.  His dad had a completely separate life. Josh barely knew him. His Grandma asked him who he thought he would keep in touch with now that high school was over. The list wasn't long. As he thought about it, he was suddenly distracted by thoughts of Amy. Although he had ostensibly broken up with her several weeks earlier, Amy was no stickler for such things, which worked well for him. Her parents were away for the week, and he'd been over just the night before. He felt a surge of power at the thought of her body under him, his blood coursing more swiftly. And then he thought about how she'd whispered in his ear, "You and me, Josh, you and me, you and me," over and over, and felt uneasy.
"Grandma," he said without thinking about it. "Who do you like better Amy or Thea?"
"Oh, Josh, honey," she'd said. "Amy's too empty-headed to care about anything but shopping. Thea is a real person. I love Thea."
At first he'd laughed. "That's not fair, Grandma -- Amy's not stupid. Besides you barely know Thea."
"You knew the answer when you asked, Josh. Don't pretend you didn't."
"Well, I doubt I'll be keeping in touch with Thea," he was suddenly angry and almost aware of the irrationality of it, but only enough to feel more irritated.
Thea had become a problem for him; he'd known that. He described her as "a great girl" to the friends who knew enough to ask. He enjoyed her company. Her kisses were soft and sweet, and sexy in a different way than Amy's. Thea, he thought, didn't even know she was sexy, that was part of it. She was a virgin, but something else, too. Paradoxically, she withheld less than Amy. He never got the feeling that Thea was thinking about something else when he was with her, or manipulating him to some purpose of her own. And she didn't seem to want to own him the way Amy did. And, just when he was sure he knew what she would say or how she would react to something, Thea would surprise him.
"I can hardly wait to get to boot camp," he'd said to her the other day as they drank coffee under a big umbrella at a downtown cafe.
"Yep," he waited for her response. He thought she'd say something girly, like she was going to miss him, or something like that. Or she'd say something lefty and liberal as she had before, about the macho bullshit of enlisting in the Marines.
"Makes sense," she'd said. "You'll be a great Marine."
Was it an insult? Was it a compliment? "I just hope I get to go to war," he said, hoping to roust her intent from behind the screen she'd set.
"Yes, well, I wouldn't expect you to say anything else."
"Don't you have a problem with that, peace-girl?" he'd said, half-laughing.
"Look, I don't hope you get to go to war, and I certainly don’t want there to be a war you’d go to, but you're a different thing than me, Josh. I think I get why you want to go. It makes sense in its way."
"Why do I want to go?"
"Oh, you know.  It's some sacred male ritual to be there and survive it.  You've got something to prove to yourself, and so be it."
She confounded him. He had explained to her that this summer, no one girl was going to get too much of his time.  He knew she'd been upset, but she wasn't clingy the way other girls were. Amy had threatened - emptily, as even he knew at the time - never to talk to him again. But Thea said she didn't care about other girls as long as she didn't have to see it, as long as he didn't pursue any of her friends. He knew that she did care, or that she should, but he also appreciated that she made it easy to come and go without the histrionics that almost made the sure thing Amy offered not worth it.
Ultimately, though, that is how he'd hurt Thea. And why she'd hurt him back.
Years and year later it still made him feel like a balloon with a slow fatal leak, the memory of her with Zach. Zach and Thea were good friends and he knew from both of them that they were not involved romantically. Zach and Josh were friends in a way that Josh believed was the beginning of the kinds of friendships he was going to have with his fellow Marines. They were friendly, collegeial, and aggressively competitive. They tried to out-think each other in conversation, out-match each other in sports, and Zach got around. He had the hottest girlfriend in the school, and it was commonly believed among the guys in their class that Zach was preternaturally able to seduce anyone he chose. It was an openly discussed goal between the two of them that Josh planned to outbed Zach that summer. They kept score -- the same girl multiple times counted only half as much as someone new. They went to parties together for the sport of the hunt.
At one point Zach had asked Josh what the story was with Thea - did he realize Thea was in love with him? Did he know she was a virgin?  Was he going to hurt her?  Zach warned Josh against using Thea for their bet.  “She’s special, man,” he’d said.
Josh told him that Thea knew about the game, and was cool with his plans for the summer, and the rest was none of Zach's business.  But Zach's protectiveness of her made Josh angry and out of his peripheral vision, he could see it was because he knew Zach was right. It wasn't fair to Thea. Josh should have made a choice to see just her or not at all. He was unwilling to make that choice. And when he'd said as much to Thea, putting upon her the responsibility to call it quits if it got too painful for her, she'd just repeated, that she didn't mind, as long as she didn't have to see him at his game.
At some point things began to feel too claustrophobic at home and Josh went to San Francisco for several weeks with a friend -- his oldest buddy, "the other Josh" -- whose dad had issued them a standing invitation. The other Josh's dad was never at home. He had a new girlfriend just a few years older than they were, and with a robust elbow to the ribs he'd joked about the boys having a better time without him and vice versa. The other Josh's dad was an embarrassment to both of them, but they thought nothing of taking advantage of his hospitality. 

In San Francisco, he and the other Josh, who known each other since kindergarten, had combed the city for chicks. There'd been plenty. They were both young and handsome, charming in different ways. When they didn't feel like looking for girls, they drank the other Josh's dad's beer and listened to music and talked about their long past and their uncertain futures. The other Josh was off to a liberal arts college at the end of the summer. They recognized that a day was coming when they wouldn't be able to talk to each other.
Hanging out in San Francisco with the other Josh, Josh almost forgot about Thea. And he did forget about Maria, Zach's girlfriend. Zach wasn't Josh's best friend, and Maria had come onto him, so Josh was disinclined to feel guilty about it. But when the first thing Zach said, as he exploded out of Thea's car, the day they came to see him in the city, was, "You fucking asshole! Fucking Maria??" Josh had a moment of concern.
"Not in front of Thea," he'd said quietly to Zach.
"She knows, you mother fucker."
When Josh had looked at Thea, she looked away for a moment, then looked back at him, and she was still there, behind her eyes. But when he stepped toward her, she shrugged.
"Fuck you, Zach," Josh said to him.
"Yeah, whatever."
And that could have been the end of it between Zach and Josh, except that Josh felt something more coming. The air was thick with too many things no one was saying.
That night the other Josh went off with other friends and left his father's apartment to Josh, Zach, and Thea. They took BART into Berkeley and went dancing. They rode BART, back the three of them, one tangled web on one seat. Thea was spread between the boys, all of them with limbs draping over one of the others. They were riding an electrical current generated by all that was unspoken between the three of them -- talking about everything and nothing, but not saying anything that would let the charge out of the air. And then at a late night diner, Josh put his head down on the table in front of him, saying he was getting tired, and Thea poured sugar into his hair. He was livid. He stalked away from the table afraid he would make a scene, and from outside he looked back in at the two of them laughing. Thea looked toward him, and in retrospect, he realized he'd seen the moment in her eyes when he could have averted what was to come. All he had to do was smile and accept this minor humiliation in exchange for all of the humiliation she must have felt to learn about him with Maria, to know about all of the others. All he had to do was let her know she was special somehow, that she wasn't wrong to feel that she was different to him, not like the others. But he'd also told her he couldn't make any room in his life right now for that kind of thing. That it wasn't personal.
It felt personal, though, when, as they got ready for bed, each boy on one of the only two mattresses in the room, and Thea climbed into bed with Zach. Josh had not invited her into his bed. Zach had. Josh had not spoken to her since the sugar -- with some part of his childhood mind he thought it was a fair test of her.
They were drunk; he knew that. But he heard them moving toward and into each other, and in what dim light of the nighttime city crept through the curtains, he watched them groping for each other. He watched Thea let Zach do things with her she'd never let him do. He knew this is what had been coming all night. At one point, Thea's eyes met his for half a second. He hated her then. Hated her more than anyone. They stopped soon after, and he was sure they didn't have sex, but Josh did not sleep afterwards. He was sitting in the kitchen as the sun came up. Thea came in shortly after daylight had fully taken hold.
"I watched you," he managed to croak. He couldn't look at her.
"I'm sorry," she said. He was silent. "I'm surprised you care."
He glared at her. "No, you aren't. You knew I'd care. That's why you did it."
"Actually, I really wasn't sure you'd care, Josh." "Don't play that fucking game with me, Thea."
"Is there some way I was supposed to know you cared? You didn't even tell me you were coming to San Francisco. I didn't even know you were gone until I called your Grandma. You just disappeared."
"How could you let him do things to you that you wouldn't even let me do?"
"Oh, Josh."
"Yeah, I saw."
Thea was quiet and Josh felt gratified to have turned the tables on her, except then he thought about the sight of her with Zach and his stomach tightened into a knot. "I feel sick," he spat. "I just can't believe you'd do that to me, Thea."
"Don't be such a hypocrite."
He looked up at her and she was crying. It made him angry but he wasn't sure at who. She met his eyes and he looked away.
"Josh, you didn't want me," she said quietly.
 He thought about the fact of that and something steely entered his veins. "Yeah, that's true," he said.
She got up and he heard her leave the apartment. He told himself he didn't care and good riddance. He told himself she was just like every other girl after all -- just as expendable. For the remaining three weeks of summer he shut her out of his mind as best he could.