“How,” Dan asked, “hi are you?”
“Fine,” I said. “Great. Very. How, hi are you?”
“Fine, good, hi. Very hi. I’m above that pine tree, cruising the heavens, hopping clouds. I’m good.”
We sat beneath the bleachers of the school football field, hidden. Kids on another planet scribbled mathematical formulas and the quotes of heroic men long dead.
Years later I would bury Dan. In another country. I would squeeze the black buttons of his burial jacket through their holes. Comb his hair. Bang nails through the wood of the box with his brother. I can smell the death sawdust. Drowning. Twenty-four years old. I kissed his icy brow before we shut the lid. Goodbye best friend.
But here he is now cross-legged with me and living. We’re in high school, emphasis on high. Everything’s good. Beth is with us. Those tight sweaters and straight hips. Those delirious, forlorn brown eyes. I wanted a piece of what they had. I wanted it to change my cells, to eat me like a cancer.
“You’re fucking high,” she said.
“Let’s go fornicate,” Dan said. “Mom’s not home.”
“Okay,” she said. “And what about him?”
“What are you gonna do?” Dan asked.
“Go to class,” I said. “Why not?”
“Because you’re high?” Beth said.
“All the better,” I said. Suddenly it hit me. “It’s Tuesday,” I said, but if it mattered, I had no idea why.
“Good luck,” Dan said. “Sure you don’t mind us leaving?”
“You guys have fun. Maybe I’ll get lucky and take an exam. I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Cool,” he said. “School should always come first. I’m a fan. I like the pencil shavings. And the tater tots.”
“Don’t do anything I’d do.”
“Tuck in your shirt,” he warned me.
Their bodies dwindled and disappeared like two sunlit seabirds as they crossed the freshly mowed field holding hands. They were great friends during a bad time. You don’t ever want to put a friend like that in a box.
We’d smoked sinsemilla. It was the green of a highlighter. My brain cells snapped and crackled. I was afraid and in love and alone. I’d jammed my finger in a socket and liked the juice.
I rattled my ghostly chains through the halls of my high school, hypnotized by the fluorescent shine of the linoleum floor, separating in my mind the different sounds, the voices, the footsteps, the metallic opening and closing of locker doors, studying the faces, all young and strange and familiar. I mumbled poetry and warnings and mystical incantations to no one. I knew them all, pimply, oily faces, vulnerable faces, the faces of angels who’d excommunicated me; I’d gotten drunk with them at parties; I’d slid my hand down the pants of the girls in basements, wet mouths tasting of lip gloss and cigarettes; I’d lied and told them all I loved them; the school was a temple without God.
I wore a pair of checkered Vans like Spicoli in Fast Times. My favorite band was AC/DC. I doodled. I had stringy blond hair and weighed 128 pounds my freshman year. My parents were divorcing, and I burned my own poems about death with the tips of my Merit cigarettes. I’d been severed from the basketball team because I couldn’t dribble with my left hand.
In the language lab we listened to French phrases through headphones, each of us bubbled inside a plexiglass cubicle. I giggled so hard I had to lay my head down. The speaker shouted in tongues. The teacher, Ms. Svendsen, watched me sympathetically. She’d once sung backup in a band that opened for the Doors. She had platinum hair and pink skin, and her face was always romantically distressed, as if her car had just broken down, and I often undressed her between the sheets while mouthing Le soleil brille and Ouvrir la fenêtre . . .
Hours or even weeks later I was on the field again and it was autumn, I remember now, when we lived in Massachusetts. The trees blazed gold and fire-red as the world navigated its slow burn, and the sunlight was liquid filling me, passing through me, and as I crossed the empty field I joined the grand lonely expanse that undulated toward the cars moaning past the parking lot of the Stop & Shop, where people purchased boxes of toasted corn flakes and tampons and Chips Ahoy! cookies.
You can’t wrap your fingers around a day like that, with the door to enlightenment cracked open; it slips through your grasp and leaves you wondering, when the rain is cold and your knuckles ache, how many more of those days you have.
And then like a magic trick I landed suddenly across from Dr. Metzinger, appointed by my parentals to unravel me, and he was explaining to me about my dad.
He stroked his beard. Did they teach psychiatrists how to dress and look? Remember to wear a sweater and glasses, grow a beard, eat enough to be soft-bellied.
“I can’t really explain it,” he was saying. “The letter I wrote asking him to meet with us—well, it was returned. Your father is a very hard man to get in touch with. I’m wondering now whether I should have tried in the first place. Whether it was such a good idea after all.”
“I’m high,” I said.
“Again,” he said.
“Is it only before you see me? Or is this an everyday occurrence?”
“I want to kill my father,” I told him. I didn’t mean it, really, but I thought it might give him a thrill.
“You’re experiencing a lot of pain,” he said.
“I think these sessions are really helping,” I lied.
“Good,” he said.
It was so easy to please that man.
I was broken when I left. Not because of anything I’d told Dr. Metzinger, or anything he’d said to me, but because my high had vanished like a best friend in a box.
It was dark. I had to walk from the middle of town. I glimpsed people in the windows of New England colonials, attempting to live their lives in other star systems; their shapes receded through the telescopic lens of my despair. Who are you? Are you like me?
Leaves scratched the pavement. Cars scuttled by like mice to their holes. Take me with you. I touched the rock wall near my old elementary school, where I’d learned the sun was a star while sitting cross-legged on the grass with other children.
When I got home, the television was chanting upstairs but the house was empty. My mother was studying at night. My little brother was somewhere, maybe at a friend’s house. How did I know the house was empty when I walked in? Can emptiness recognize emptiness like its reflection?
I pulled myself up the stairs and dropped into the recliner in front of the television. Superman. Black and white. Its star, I knew, would place a gun to his head after the show’s demise. But for now there he was, leaping with white-knuckled fists through Hollywood studio air, soaring, rescuing the desperate and the damned.
High, high, high he flew. Through the heavens. Where heroes go.
Mark Brown lived in Bangkok for six years, where he co-hosted a nationally televised quiz show. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and his work is currently featured in The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals. (updated 7/2012)