The music is too loud, even for John. The buzzing of something he’d been handed along with the alcohol was coalescing into a floating agitation. He needs to move from the couch, to get outside, but is uncertain of his balance. A girl stumbling is cute, but if he shows weakness he might get shoved into the wall. Sitting next to Gwendolyn still, somehow. He had given her a ride, kind of by chance, not really a date—she had popped by and mentioned the party—he didn’t expect she’d spend the whole evening with him. She was around a bit, quite a bit lately, but just seemed friendly; too friendly for anything else. Thinks he might just being used for rides, but doesn’t mind.
After a few false starts at conversation over the din of inebriated trance beats, he sits quiet, trying to determine the cause of the one imperfection in the carpet before of him, snapping intermittent glances at the downy hair on Gwen’s right forearm; her fingers now running light over a small white scar just above her bare knee. She has turned to talk with a friend. Three jocks, one female, and a couple of bored androgynous aesthetes complete a circle around them. Small towns. Everyone has to keep hanging out like it's high school still, two years out. All were shouting over the pounding sound. Shouting about simple enough stuff, but John can’t find a way to improve it with yet more words. He has taken up snorting when he feels it will provide concurrence appropriately. He can’t be heard, but hopes Gwen at least notices his affirming movements at her interjections.
The music suddenly drops down into a low dreamy trance. Turning to look at Gwen’s cheek, she turns smiling, “Why so serious?”
“I have to go.”
“Eww John, TMI.” How come she’s talking like that?
“No. I need to leave.”
“Oh”, she is disappointed, “Why? Things are just getting going. We haven’t even started dancing yet.”
“You can stay.” He says awkwardly, wondering how many ways that could be interpreted, wrongly. “I just need to go outside for a bit. What was that we took?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t take it.”
“I saw him put it in your mouth.”
She whispers her confidence into his ear, “Yeah, but I didn’t swallow it. I don’t trust that guy. Kinda creepy. But it’s safer not to make a scene.” John gets goosebumps; her breath warm and voice wise and gentle.
John feels worse, pulling himself to the edge of the couch, if he had only known earlier that deception is sometimes the most ethical course of action. Looking back, “Do you think I am creepy?”
John, louder, “Do you think I’m creepy?” The music drops and everyone looks.
"Now that you mention it Johnny." The voice of one of the jocks, John can't remember his name.
Gwen laughs pushing his shoulder lightly. Uncertain what this means John finds his way to his feet, red faced. His legs ache; he wants to reach down and touch his toes but resists the spectacle, walking instead through the kitchen toward the front door.
“Hey Johnny Boy.” Ken, a monstrous piece of work, blocked the only way through at the far end of the kitchen, leaning against the door jamb. “How’s Einstein today?”
“I’m no Einstein.”
“See you’re here with Gwen. Not bad big brains”, Ken pulling at his crotch. A small posy of betas chortle and smirk sycophantically.
“You bin workin’ out lad?” Ken lifts John’s arm and squeezes his bicep hard until he flexes to resist. It hurts, but John does not flinch.
“Hey not bad little man. You were such a pussy in middle school. Remember when I kicked your ass.”
“How could I forget?”
“Yeah, but you were being a dick. What were you doing?”
“Really? Me neither. Must have been a dick or I wouldn’t have kicked your ass.”
Actually John had bested Ken in English class, and foolishly took the opportunity to gloat. In the afternoon, Ken turned to the only recourse he had, his fists. He was actually easy on John. Kind of hard, even for Ken, to destroy a guy who could barely manage a defensive posture. Still, the weeks of that black eye were the most shameful of John's life. He has been working out ever since.
“Love to talk Ken but I left my coat at the front door.”
“What’s the hurry Johnny, we’re just catching up.”
John doesn’t know how to respond. He always feels Ken is one syntactical misunderstanding away from swinging. He stands woozily, wondering if he should just strike first and pay back that black eye form grade 8. He wonders for a minute if he is strong enough to take Ken. But how could that matter anymore? Ken is getting a bit fat. Sloppy even. He won’t finish well. His old man is a loud mouthed lard ass; no doubt living off his inertia from youth. Ken still seemed to have more confidence than John. Perhaps Ken just had nothing else to think about.
“You don’t look so good Johnny; you didn’t take the white pill did you?”
“You sure.” Ken begins moving his face in and out from John’s, thumbs in his ears and fingers up like wriggling antlers, “Ooo scary. Scary. What was that show? Oh yeah, Oooo scared myself.”
The charade has its affect; John wants to spew, or lie on the floor.
“Well if you are leaving I guess I’ll just have to go sit next to Gwen. Oh, too late. Looks like Brad already moved in.”
He had. John turns to see Gwen gesturing animatedly in conversation with Brad. Her soft white forearms rotating her hands, elbows perched on her knees. Why did he get up? Why couldn’t he get her talking like that? Under the influence his heart both rose and sunk. He stared at her straight brown hair pulled back over her ear, a few stray strands. She was beautiful in a plain way. Left to her physicality, she would be average looking. But there was a deep grace in her; some mystical sweetness that made her irresistible, and somehow unattainable. As he watched John fell further, hating Bradley Barns. 'The guy’s a vacuous dandy.' John could take him no problem brain or brawn. But that was no way to win Gwen. Or maybe?
“You just gunna look at her all night Johnny Boy?” Ken breaks John’s reverie; pushing him back into the living room. Gwen looks up as he stumbles in. She is quizzical, shoulders shrugged—palms up. John reads her lips, “I thought you were going?”
“Couldn’t get through the kitchen.” Smiling lamely and mimicking her pose. She cups her hand to her ear shaking her head. He wants nothing more than to replace Brad on the couch. If only he had the balls to wedge his way between them and stake his claim. But how do you follow-up a move like that. He notices a sliding glass door at the side of the little sunroom they are gathered in.
“I’m going to go this way.” Hoping she will follow.
“What? I can’t hear.” he reads.
John points pecking his finger like a chicken toward the door, then pretends to open it and walks across the air with his fingers.
“Oh.” She is smiling (is it uncertain?) and returns to talk to Brad, who is staring uncomprehendingly between Gwen and John his mouth slightly agape.
John has to walk through the circle of jocks to get to the door. It slides smoothly on the track. The air, cool and fresh, mixed with a hint of marijuana, welcomes him outside. A small circle of kids are passing a joint, boasting about other times they got more wasted.
“Hey man, want some?” One asks, straining smoke between his teeth, holding the doobie outside the group toward John. Why does every pot head sound like a 45 year old burnout?
“No thanks man, I’m more than good.” John continues past toward a large tree in the middle of the back yard. He stands before it quiet for a minute, examining its form, the will of its becoming. He looks up into its large but youthful branches. Lying down on his back—head toward the trunk. The grass is wet and begins soaking through his sweater and shirt. He does not flinch, but resigns himself to gravity’s draw. It's a London Plane. The leaves are new, pale green and hopeful. A large patch of space is visible through a cloud break, John notices the Big Dipper. Following the line projected by the two lead stars on the cup he looks for the North Star, but clouds obscure. He fixes his eye were it should be and waits for an approaching clear patch of sky to reveal it.
Why did he want her so badly and why was he so useless at getting her. She hung around. She didn’t seem desperate, just universally nice. Too nice? Maybe he was too much a shit. The girl can provide the sweetness still, can’t she? He would feel like such an idiot if he tried something and was wrong, or offended her. The thought of forming the words, “I like you, Gwen”, made him tense on the ground. What a gay pussy. ‘Do you like me like that?’ He derides himself. ‘Really? What time are you from Johnny Boy?’ Then out loud, “I couldn’t bear if she said, ‘No.’” Looking up he notices the circle of the weed had gone back inside. Her ‘No’ would ruin everything. He wouldn’t see her the same. She couldn’t be his source of hopefulness again, only the dull meaningless mediocrity of being ‘just friends’. It all seemed silly. People don’t talk about falling in love in college anymore, not like for forever. It was all just about getting laid; falling in love is too costly and dull, doesn’t last. Or so the brave new convention has it. He wanted to protect her and be loved and cared for in return. John felt a tinge of shame for wanting her in this way. (He is certain this is an illegal social arrangement in some European countries.)
The North Star visible, briefly, through a small break in the cloud.
“Well things can’t stay like this forever. Someone else will grab her if you don’t take the chance” The idea of someone else filled him with hatred. He should give her something. One of the leaves? It will be silly. But it will prove her good humour. Rising to his feet slowly and plucking a fresh leaf from a low branch, John turns toward the house and sees Gwen squinting with her hand for a visor at her forehead, bathed in porch light. Her other arm is clutching at her sweater.
“John, Are you out here?” Shout-whispering.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing?” She begins to take careful steps across the patio.
“Just needed some quiet.”
“You coming back inside?” She implores gently. `Ken is sitting next to me talking about his truck. I think it has titanium cup holders?”
“Sure. But you should come here first.” John surprised at his own words.
“It’s cold. The grass is wet, and I left my shoes inside.”
“I’ll carry you over.” John pulls off his sweater and folds it into a bundle with the dry side up. You should see this tree.” Walking over the grass, he meets Gwen at the edge of the patio.
“I can see it from here.”
“But it’s different from under.” He smiles and she returns. “Hop on.” John turns his back to her crouching.
“You’re a goof.”
“The goofiest. Come on you don’t want to miss out.”
“Yeah, on a piggy back ride to my tree tree island.”
“This is behaviour unbecoming a modern woman.”
“Well, get your feet wet then if you prefer.”
“Are you sure you are strong enough?”
Gwen jumps up on John’s back and he hooks his arms under her knees. The wooziness of earlier has settled. The cold air and the wetness of his back have forced sobriety. Gwen is perched lightly, leaning on her folded arms, hands gripping his lats.
“You’re wet. This better be worth it.”
“It will be.” John promises, without really knowing what he’s going to do. “When I lower you, land on my sweater. It will keep your feet dry.”
Gwen slides off John’s back onto the sweater. He turns, looking intently at her under the cover of the tree—the light striking her face from over his left shoulder. Gwen's pool-blue eyes staring back.
“Beautiful here isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes it is”, she says looking up into the branches. I love trees, they always seem so. . . wise.”
“Yeah Like they know just how to be what they are. And don’t have to go anywhere to be it.”
John looks down and sees the leaf. Reaching up he plucks a fresh one, holding it out. “This is for you.” She receives it like treasure, beaming. John Descends on one knee. “Gwendolyn, will you . . . will you be my girl?”
“I thought I already was.” Picking up the sweater Gwen takes John’s hand and leads him over the wet grass toward the house. Looking down he sees his runners, tame against the wild beauty of her white feet collecting dew and grass blades. Closer to the house the glass of the sliding door is elastic at the pounding beat from within. She clenches his hand, “Wanna dance?”