We hadn’t seen or heard from Sam and Nellie in, I don’t know, ages, so when they called, each on a separate line, giggling, still smoking dope, to inform us they were headed our way, Linda and I felt slightly unsettled. Nothing seismic, just the fluttering of a thistle in the wind. We were excited, sure, but time is a sledgehammer, and what if they weren’t the same people we knew so well during our last year in college?
Linda and I had changed, that’s a fact. I would like to think for the better, but then I’m the one looking in the mirror. Back then, about seven years ago, you couldn’t separate the four of us; we lived together in this sloppy hovel rented out to students by the usual evil slumlord, we partied hard, gave tomorrow the finger. And more often than I can remember Sam wound up in bed with Linda, and I with Nellie. Sometimes our entire fleshy quartet gave that ratty little bed with the clacking headboard and splotchy sheets a good workout. Not something I regret, but Linda and I are married now, settled, mature I guess you could say. So are Sam and Nellie, married, that is. I don’t know much more except that Nellie still peddles her artwork on Jackson Square down in New Orleans, and Sam works as a waiter at Café du Monde.
Sam is massive, could hurl a boulder, but he’s also a gentle soul, spaced-out, relaxed, easy-going. I say is, but who knows? I was once the same way (though never quite as thorough, or sincere, at it as Sam), which is why we blended so well. We liked to think nothing could rattle us. Sam would flick back his long blond hair, smile, toke some weed, and say, “What difference will all this make in one hundred years?” Which always calmed us down.
Nellie, a little high-strung, sometimes shrill as a piccolo, had cobalt-black hair draping down to her fabulous derriere. She wore granny glasses, smoked skinny brown cigarillos, recited poetry to us when we floated in the haze of altered consciousness. She had a passion for William Blake, and I can still hear her delicate yet crystalline voice almost chanting, “He who bends to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy. . . .” Always the slight hoarseness, a hairline in the crystal, so throatily sexy.
She painted darkness though, images she extracted from what she called the underworld, always with the help of weed and trance drumming and sometimes good, old-fashioned OHM. In another life I can imagine her as some exotic, sensual queen, or maybe courtesan, or both at once. I can even picture her in a cave in ancient Greece foaming at the mouth. Oh, I was hot for Nellie – an ache, a wound, an obsession – and we all knew it, even Linda, who sometimes succumbed to the same passion. But, for better or worse, my mind always had a superb braking system; I knew when to back off, knew Nellie meant disaster. You didn’t exactly get along with Nellie, you worshiped her, obeyed her, craved her approval. She had tattoos of fish on each breast – the left, a swordfish, the right, a hammerhead. She wore rosary beads and a big clunky cross, though she denounced Christianity in general as contaminated by mindless Jesus freaks. Yet I spotted her more than once skulk into the small Catholic chapel on campus, where, inside, she knelt between pews, rubbed the beads furiously, and, I guess, prayed. Nellie was vamp gorgeous, like the young Greta Garbo whose movies I’d seen in a film class; her body, more angular and lean than lavish, demanded homage – and it received.
But Linda was more my type, less urgent, more reasonable, softer, radiant, not scalding. She was, and remains, beautiful too in her own blondish, quiet, glowingly melancholic way. I’m not saying sex with Nellie was anything less than volcanic (yet always a struggle, as if she yearned to drag you back into a smoky pre-history full of vines, wet ferns and bogs), but with Linda you could breathe, smile, dare to relax. The rainbow after a summer shower. I’m not sure how Sam felt about Linda in that area because we never talked about it. Whatever happened happened. Nor did he ever ask questions about my bouts, and I mean bouts, with Nellie. The two women said nothing. Our collective muteness on the subject probably blanketed some unexplored realm of the psyche better left unexcavated. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Sam and Nellie, even Linda sometimes, taunted me for being a business major, but I would wag my finger and smirk, “Someday.” The brakes once again. I had always suppressed a pebble-sized dread of the future, even as I cursed it, especially back then when cool meant taking tomorrow about as seriously as a grain of rice. I feared winding up on the street, lurking, at fifty years old, in an alley with nothing more than a bottle of Gallo wine in my sack. I needed a plan, a path, a direction, and never assumed the future would cuddle me fondly with fuzzy soft mittens and set me down in a nest of doves. Which is how Sam and Linda felt – blessed, I guess you could call it.
Nellie, you were never certain what Nellie thought. Those grotesque, black images on her canvasses, gargoyles and typhonic half-beast, half-man shadows, they weren’t exactly happy-go-lucky. Sometimes I dreamed Nellie drove her car off a bridge or drank a gallon of Prestone. And yet she laughed enough, mothered us when we were down, nudged us back in line when we lagged. She also drank more than the rest us put together and remained permanently stoned. Even Sam gave it a rest every now and then. Linda and I certainly did. We couldn’t bear feeling murky, drained and hollow all the time.
These days Linda and I don’t smoke or drink much aside from a rare glass of Chardonnay or Chablis when out at some restaurant. We don’t own one bottle of liquor. Weed now makes Linda frantically paranoid; she gets cold, trembles, imagines enemies waiting in siege. The last time she smoked, she went hysterical and screamed at the kitchen sink. She said it swarmed with demons. I just stopped smoking as a matter of course. The lone toker is a desolate toker. And although I often miss the beauty and surge of those glorious highs, the way orange juice tasted, the munchies . . . I don’t miss them enough to repeat history. I also enjoy clarity of mind, order, straightness. And given my business, I can’t afford to stumble.
Business major made good all right. Member of the Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce. One little backslide and I could lose everything: the very enemy mentality we friends swore we would never, ever condone in others or embrace ourselves. Bourgeois. New, improved. Batteries not included. Wal-Mart of the mind. So, imagine, I went out and started a company! I’m the traitor, the living fifth-column. When Linda and I first moved to Richmond, I landed a nothing job in an antique store, and noticed fast that the dealers went broke half the time; those who cashed in, as usual, were of administrative ilk, the ones who leased warehouses, divided them into cubicles and rented each cubicle to the desperate dealers. Plus they took a hefty commission on every sale. The dealers were screwed both rent- and commission-wise!
So I secured a bank loan – don’t ask me how I, fresh out of college, merited it – scouted around for a warehouse, found one in decent shape on a commercial stretch of Monument Avenue, and stuffed it with dealers in every conceivable kind of discarded treasure. I had one middle-aged lady who sold nothing but depression glass; another, a grizzled old man, baseball cards; a gay couple who specialized in fine art and, of all things, doilies; one creepy, recluse-like fellow who handled antique cigar labels. Talk about crazy. While I went home with the bacon, the dealers trudged out with a few scraps and bones.
Did I feel guilty? I refused to feel guilty. The business of America is business, and all that crap. We made so much money the first year; Linda quit her waitress job and opened a small nursery. She and plants got along fabulously. If Linda breathed on a seed, it sprouted the next day and soon blossomed into something serenely wondrous and bountiful. At this point, she has two college students helping her out; one of them, a bearded Jesus-looking young man, reminds me of me seven years ago and every now and then it occurs to me that Linda and this neo-hippie are getting it on. Does it bother me that my wife might be unfaithful? Of course it does. I keep my eyes open.
The day before Nellie and Sam arrived, we vacuumed, and mopped floors, scoured the bathrooms, changed sheets on the two beds, crammed food into the refrigerator, even bought cases of wine and Samuel Adams. They planned to stay a week or so, and Nellie turned her gardens over to the two students. My assistant manager who would take care of my business. I didn’t quite trust him, and planned to make random appearances at the warehouse while Nellie and Sam took naps or walks or blissed out or needed to be alone. I did intend to smoke some for old time’s sake, but not to the point of phase shift; maybe Nellie and Sam had toned down as well, though I doubted it, not after hearing their voices on the phone. They sounded exactly the way they sounded seven years ago. And I knew they sensed a tightness in my voice, the modest strain of surprise, apprehension. Repeating the past is always a bad idea. On the other hand, I longed to see them, and do did Linda.
If one could capture on celluloid the facial reactions of people who knew each other intimately, meeting again for the first time after nearly a decade, what might such footage reveal? Delight? Horror? While seven years may seem an eye blink when you’re ensnared, they’re a vast chasm if you try to obliterate them, which is the point of reunions. The flesh slackens and wrinkles, hair thins, the lean torso turns ziggurat, blue clouds form under eyes a bit dimmer than before. Memory freeze-dries its phantoms. You note that a once cute little mole on the cheek has turned blobish and hairy. So when the doorbell finally rang, Linda and I looked at each other for a long moment, and made no move. When it rang again, we scampered, and suddenly, abruptly, there we all were, united again in space time, hugging, kissing, laughing, sweating. Sam, in wrinkled shirt and khakis, looked great; he hadn’t changed a bit, or perhaps he looked even rosier than I remember, and bigger. Had I shrunken a tad?
Nellie, oh, I felt wave patterns flow from her being; she was still radioactive. Black leather pants, the figure more rounded and thus even more sexy, a tight halter, the upper mounds of her breasts exposed. The hair shorter but still below her shoulders. Two golden loops dangling from her ear lobes, and a subtle platinum ring coiling out of one nostril. A new tattoo on the upper right forearm: a dolphin leaping out of the sea. No more granny glasses (she would later mention that laser surgery made her vision better now than when she was born).
Of course they were apprising Linda and me as well. We felt ant-like eyes crawl all over us. What did they see? No doubt, defects that had evolved, erosion, which our mirrors obscured from us, had grown used to. I knew I weighed a little more, had sprouted a few strands of gray, and cultivated the finer feet of crows. Linda too had gained some weight, but only four pounds or so; her face had hollowed out some, her lips seemed more taut. But if such impressions were being registered, Sam and Nellie didn’t seem to notice or care. They barged in, dropped their knapsacks to the floor, stretched, and took in the abode. Why did I feel so treacherous?
“Where’s your car?” I asked
Sam laughed. “We hitched, man. All the way from New Orleeeeeeans. We live in the Quarter and don’t need a car. Besides, we’re against cars.” He snorted a lot. “Poisoning the atmosphere. Megabucks for corporate interests. We walk or use bikes.”
I failed to mention at that moment that we had just bought a great, guzzling SUV, which I could justify because we always needed to transport Linda’s plants or cartons of stuff from the warehouse.
“Sit down, sit down, y’all,” Linda said. “We pulled all the sofas together so we can stretch out.”
They did sit but continued to silently take in the room, our possessions, the antiques, the aura of nouveau riche. I admit I squirmed a bit. I had replaced all the plastic light switch plates with fancy vintage brass. Suddenly they seemed out of place, even grotesque. You notice brass; plastic goes unseen.
“Looks like you found a gold mine, Jake. Ve-ry impressive. You own or rent?”
“Own,” I said. My words came out more clipped, abrupt, than usual. “Well, the bank owns. We pay the bank.”
“Yeah, we just rent. Don’t see any point to owning. Remember that book by Thoreau we read in English? ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ We figure if we want to split, we can just pack our bags.”
“Where are your shoes?” Linda asked.
We often went without shoes in the old days, so it seemed normal enough that Sam and Nellie were only wearing socks. But their shoes had disappeared.
“We didn’t want to mess up your floors,” Nellie laughed. “We don’t want to burden you. They’re outside.”
“No big deal,” Linda said. “Kind of cold without shoes right now.”
“We’re ok,” Nellie said in a tone that suggested, no demanded, let it go.
“I’m cooking a big pot of spaghetti tonight,” Linda said, “so you better prepare for an Italian feast. Garlic bread. Antipasto. The works.”
“Cool,” said Sam, then, “Uh, where’s the bathroom? Do you mind?”
“Go down that hall, hang a right. You’ll see it. It’s the one with the toilet.”
“Yeah, right,” Sam said. I always liked that little growl in his voice.
He pulled a towel out of his duffel bag and proceeded down the hall.
“What’s with the towel?” Linda asked. “We have towels.”
“Oh, you know, we don’t like to burst into people’s houses and make a lot of extra work,” Nellie waved. “We bring our own towels wherever we go. Which reminds me, I’m going to take a smoke.”
“I’ll get an ashtray,” I said. In the old days, we used beer cans for ashtrays. Now I had lead crystal beauties.
“No, I’ll stand in the doorway. We can still talk. No dirty fumes in other people’s houses. That’s not fair.”
“Nellie,” Linda said, “that’s crazy. You can smoke in here. We don’t smoke any more, but you don’t have to stand in the doorway.”
“I insist,” Nellie said as she extracted the joint from a pocket in her leather pants. How anything could fit into one of those pockets, even a smashed little smoke, amazed me.
“You’re looking good, Nell,” I said as she moved toward the door.
“Like my ass?” she laughed, poking it out as if on exhibition.
My eyes met Linda’s. In the old days, I could have pounced on those words, come up from behind, and shown her exactly how much I liked it. But something in Linda’s eyes warned swing low, sweet chariot, so I didn’t respond at all. Yet Linda herself did not hesitate to take in the sight. A perfect ass, yes, still, after all these years. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Burnished leather on women has always weakened me.
I had noticed that when Sam bear-hugged Linda when they first arrived, she had stiffened up. And worse, I stiffened as well. I didn’t want Sam near or alone with Linda. Had Linda and I become the dreary, boring burghers the four of us had once passed off as the living dead? Skirmishes on a psychic battlefield. Sam and Nellie were obviously up for re-enactments of the good old lustful days; they exuded hormonal energy, even smelled like bodily fluids. Linda and I had wrinkled into dusty old prunes, which is not to say that I could simply whisk Nellie’s charms away with a straw broom. Suddenly I had a secret life, yearning for another woman in the very presence of a wife whom I adored. And I had no idea what Linda was thinking.
Nellie stood in the doorway, blowing Saturn’s outside as we made small talk.
“It’s so great to see you guys!” she effused. Her smile weakened me. “I see you’ve lost a little hair, Jake. Few silver strands in mine. Are we getting old?”
“Old is a concept,” Sam said, blasting back into the room. Sam always seemed everywhere at once.
“Yeah, right,” Linda laughed. “That’s what the mirror says every morning. Have y’all got into Oil of Olay yet?”
After a while, Sam and Nellie decided to take a walk around the neighborhood, stroll up the avenue, and check out the Civil War heroes.
“We’ll come too,” I said, eager to get out of the house for a while. The house usually felt spacious and airy, but I was having a little trouble breathing.
“Oh no, no, no,” Nellie said, “I’m sure you all have work to do. We’re not just barging in and making you drop everything. Last thing we want to be is a burden.”
Five minutes after they left, Linda and I went up to take a nap. “We must be old,” I sighed. “They’re still the same. Here we are, tired, sneaking in a little sleep while they’re out and about town.”
Linda said nothing. She slid under the covers, placed the pillow over her head, and lay still as a corpse. I lay beside her and listened to her breathe, rapidly at first, then still, still, the easy respiration of sleep. But just as I began to doze off, she said softly, “Sam’s getting a double chin. Nellie looks a little pale.” Then the curtain dropped and we zonked out cold.
They still hadn’t returned when we got up, so Linda went down to the kitchen and got out the big pots. I heard clanking, faucets running, cabinet doors slamming. She planned to cook a gigantic mound of pasta while I set the table and poured the wine and toasted the garlic bread. It’s all we ate back in college, spaghetti – easy, fast, a no-brainer. We had the table all set and the meal ready when Sam and Nellie came in carrying some white paper bags. “We found this little deli,” Sam said.
“I’ve got spaghetti,” Linda said, her jaw dropping ever so slightly.
“We don’t want to be a burden.” Nellie’s refrain. “You go ahead and eat and don’t waste a dime on us. We have these neat little sandwiches and salads.”
So we gathered round the table and ate, Linda and I, the spaghetti, Sam and Nellie, the baked tofu, cheese and alfalfa sprouts, which Nellie claimed sanitized the intestines. “Death begins in the colon,” she laughed. “Got to keep it flushed. Pasta is like sludge. But, hey, I don’t want to spoil your meal. We bought some wine too. This French Pinot Noir, loaded with antioxidants.”
“We have wine,” I said meekly.
Afterwards we retired to the living room, slouched on the sofas and stared goofily at each other. Sam retrieved the inevitable plastic bag from his knapsack. “This is excellent stuff,” he said. “We grow our own. Never know what you’re getting on the street. Organic, man.”
“Not laced with pesticides,” Nellie added.
The subtle superiority of it all.
He rolled a perfect joint, got it started and passed it to Linda. Linda gazed at me with raised eyebrows.
“She can’t smoke anymore,” I said. “Paranoia. Me too, a little, but not like Linda.”
“That’s pretty common,” Nellie said. “All your old phobias and terrors start to emerge. The weed is like a catalyst. I know this guy in New Orleans who like goes into a coma when he smokes. It’s still great for Sam and me, thank God.” She offered me the joint. “Jake?”
“Yeah, I’m ok,” I said, sucking in a lungful, exhaling fast, coughing. My eyes watered. “Wow, this is potent. You grow your own?”
“Beats the middle-man,” Sam laughed. “We have this great skylight, and down there the humidity is so high, anything grows. All you need is some mud and little pots. We’re not dealers, though. It’s just for us. Which reminds me . . .”
Sam stretched and pulled out a wad of cash from his jeans. “For you,” he said, pushing it at me.
“Just helping you out with the expenses for having us.”
“Are you nuts? You’re our guests. I’m not taking any money from you.”
Sam grinned. “If you don’t, I’ll stick it in a drawer somewhere, and you’ll find it later. We insist.”
“Take the money, Jake,” Nellie said. She reached over and put her hand on my knee. Suddenly I felt zonked, warm, tingly, blasted with joy. The room tilted a bit; colors intensified; I was on my way.
“You guys!” I laughed. “What is this stuff we’re smoking? Laced with coke? Hey, I heard on the news they found an invisible universe. Imagine. Here we are in the visible universe and somewhere out there is an invisible one. What if we live there, and, you know, were like invisible? How could you tell which was which? What’s the real us?”
Nellie and Sam roared. “Jake, I believe you have entered the kingdom. How long has it been?”
Nellie floated over and eased herself onto my lap, her legs clutching my thighs vice-like, so that we faced each other. “Remember me?” she asked and rubbed her lips all over my face. She smelled like almond oil, and estrogen and desire.
I had lost track of Linda, though I sensed her disapproving aura. And vaguely I understood that Sam had made his move. He stood above her behind the sofa and massaged her shoulders. “Oh, that feels good,” I heard her moan. But I know her moans. This one was tentative. I smashed my lips onto Nellie’s and pawed at her breasts as she unbuttoned my shirt. “We’re invisible!” I cried and began to plummet into her primeval depths. “We’re geometric forms. Nobody can see us. This isn’t the universe.” I lingered over the delicate flesh coating her ribs. What splendid membrane. It sent flames through my palms. “Oh, oh,” I was reduced then to grunts, “oh, oh.”
Then I heard Linda screaming at Sam. “I can’t do this,” she cried, “I can’t. It’s not the same. Stop it, I can’t–-“
My wife’s anguish jolted me instantly back into the visible universe, not some psychedelic phantom world, and I tumbled gracelessly off the sofa onto the floor, Nellie still half naked. “Hey,” I cried, “what’s happening. Sam? Linda, you ok?”
Sam grinned and I don’t know if it was my angle or the effects of the home-grown, but he looked demonic. That easy grin, now the rictus of a skull. There was a skeleton in our living room, its finger bones groping for Linda. She had curled into a ball at the edge of the other sofa and was softly weeping. “Ease off, Sam,” Nellie said. She gathered herself together. Nellie could always read a situation. “They’re freaking out.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, “I thought – “
”Maybe we should leave. We don’t want to be a burden,” Nellie mumbled. And at that moment I hated her. Sam came over and lifted me off the floor by my armpits. I hated that too. Aren’t armpits sacred? A territorial deal.
“Hey, man,” he laughed, “the vibes are terrible. You ok? Weed is poison for you two now. No problem, amigo.”
“Not just the weed,” I mumbled. “A misunderstanding. I think you people came here to fuck us.”
An ominous silence ricocheted around the room. Then, “Duh?” from Nellie. And more tittering. “Hear that, Sam? We hitched all the way from New Orleans to fuck our friends. Some guests we are, eh? I think we should leave.”
Sam would do whatever Nellie asked. Without Nellie, he would have crumbled years ago. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. I thought I heard his bones creak.
I slid over on the other sofa and hugged Linda. “You all right, sweetheart?” No answer but she shuddered in my arms. “I swear to God I’m sorry. It’s not like it was. I couldn’t stand to think of you and Sam together. And look what I go and do! Please forgive me.”
Linda turned to face me. Her cheeks were swollen and splotchy and tears poured out of her eyes. “Do you love me?” she asked pitifully.
“You know I love you,” I started to cry too. “I love you more than everything.”
“More than Nellie?”
Nellie and Sam had been stuffing their junk into the knapsacks. “Jake doesn’t love me, Linda,” Nellie answered for me. “But we all used to love each other. I don’t know what’s happened here, but c’est la vie. I hope we weren’t a burden.”
Hearing it one more time incensed Linda; she reared up and cried, “No, you weren’t a fucking burden. I wish you had been. I wish you had used our towels. I wish you’d eaten our food. And smoked in the house. Well, you did, finally. Bravo. And didn’t make us feel like lepers. And please splotch mud on the floors. And act normal, for Christ’s sake.”
I could feel Nellie cringe, even with my face burrowed into Linda’s chest.
“Normal?” she laughed. “You call this normal? This house . . . what is it, Tudor-ersatz, or something? In the Fan? What’s the cost per inch around here. All those creepy statues. This is how you live now? Jake was right. There’s an invisible universe. And you’ve moved to it. We’re out of here. But I swear we aren’t going mad or pissed off or offended. We’re just going. I wish none of this had happened.”
They did not slam the door. It’s as if they simply disappeared, and not a trace remained except a tiny roach in the ashtray. Suddenly I thought of this character I learned about in English class. Tithonus. An ash hanging in some jar. My mind was still altered and I wondered if they had ever really been here.
“They actually smoked inside,” I said. “Maybe we didn’t give it a chance. They’re our best friends.”
“I don’t think so,” Linda said, stretching, relieved, “not now. What happened? Are we boring now? Old, dull, stuffy? Maybe we’ve become our parents. That’s not so bad, is it?”
“Who knows,” I said. “I’m just glad they’re gone. Do you think I should get in the car and offer to drive them to the bus station or airport or whatever?”
“And be a burden? No way, Jose. They’ve got their own thing worked out. You need to stay here with me. I’m on the verge of on an anxiety attack.”
“I love you, Linda,” I said, nuzzling my face into her neck. “You know that, right?”
“But you wanted to fuck Nellie.”
“Oh, man,” I sighed. “I’m not sure if I did or not. I would have, probably. It’s happened before and nobody minded. But I didn’t. Doesn’t that count?”
“It counts,” she said, and smiled at me for the first time since our guests arrived, “but only by default. You’d better watch your step, Don Juan.”
“They were quite a burden,” I laughed.
“Yet it’s like they were never really here. Like we imagined it all.”
I leaned back on the sofa, collapsed in sloppy relief, sloped my head over the backrest, and slid out of my loafers. “I’m not sure they were here. I’m still a little zonked, but . . . an invisible universe, imagine.”
”What’s that over there?” Linda asked.
“On the what-not, squashed under that old clock. When are you getting it fixed?”
I squinted, recognized, and groaned. “Oh no, it’s cash. Sam left the money after all. They were here.”
“You have to send it back.”
“I don’t know, I’ve got to think about it.”
“You have to send it back.”
“It would be like saying we’re through, we never, ever want to see you again. As it is, maybe there’s a chance.”
“You have to send it back.”
“Is that what you mean by watching my step? It’s a real bridge-burner.”
“Send it back.”