Some of the guys feigned party animal personalities: shirts carefully disheveled, pretending to love beer, chest-bumping high fives when someone said something about a woman, any woman (likely not present, they’d be too afraid to say anything that might actually be heard). But you could almost see the lifetime indentation of pocket protectors across their sunken ribcages, the way they checked their watches to make sure they would get enough sleep so they could be at the library in the morning when it opened.
For now, though, they were in full party mode, flailing their arms to “Burning Down the House,” prancing like roosters who were doing intentionally bad Mick Jagger impersonations, one hand out supporting a thin plastic cup filled with warm, weak beer. A few brave-hearted women made an effort to dance, but they seemed resigned to another Friday night like this, knowing that something was happening somewhere, while they were stuck with these moldering scraps from life’s dumpster.
The party was self-destructing before everyone’s eyes, but even that was not completely uninteresting. If you and your friends could not pull off a good party, if behooved you to pretend to take some perverse joy from bad ones. The self-respect in the room wouldn’t fill a beaker, but if you ended the night with more of it than anyone else, well, then, I guess that’s something, right?
To paraphrase Tolstoy, as one of the men in attendance was doing for a gauzily drunk young woman, demonstrating that it is unnecessary to read everything assigned to him in English, his major, just to stop when you hit something good, something to say in class or to a girl to make you seem like you know what you are talking about when you really spend each night not reading but just walking around, looking in windows, trying the doors on cars for one that’s unlocked not to steal but just to sit in the car, think for a while about another life, check for what cassettes they had, which one was in the deck, look in the glove compartment, touch another person’s life. You didn’t have to read all of Tolstoy, or even half, or even a chapter, or even a full paragraph—Tolstoy, his new favorite writer, was conveniently pithy right away. None of that messy waiting around for the good stuff, the single iron-gray hair on the pillow, the Snowdens of yesteryear, the rest is silence.
The girl—he did not know her name, but called her “Chicago” because she wore a Cubs t-shirt, neatly avoiding even the discussion of names—he hoped she knew his name (it was Billy), but that never seemed to be a problem with women, they just knew stuff somehow and that was fine with him because he knew stuff too, or at least could fake it. She smiled glassily up at him, smelled of cigarettes and beer, the international fragrance of youth, while he paraphrased Tolstoy: “good parties are all alike; bad ones are bad in their own particular ways.” He sat on the couch sipping from the same plastic cup as everyone else, but his was filled with a green liquid. The Duck (he never came out of his room at night except to mix drinks in the bathtub in the hall) said it was “Gatorade, mostly.”
Billy tried (and failed, mostly) never to get drunk because the first time he did freshman year he ended up booting and while he laid in the grass outside his dorm could think of nothing except for the line his professor wrote on the board and then spent an hour translating it as if nobody understood English: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” which, of course Billy had not gotten to because it came at the end of a long, boring story, but which the professor droned on and on about in class, ignoring Billy’s better point about the symbolism of a street being “blind.”
Chicago’s head fell awkwardly on Billy’s shoulder: asleep? passed out? “Take this party, for example,” he waved his arms around the room, speaking loud enough so that others would hear and come over to listen—he jostled the girl gently with his shoulder, pretended to reposition himself to get more comfortable, because he really didn’t want anyone to see him with a girl passed out on his lap—it would be the most interesting thing to happen that night and his friends would spend the whole week talking about it. So he spoke ironically loud, hoping to be rescued from the predicament.
No one noticed.
Muttley fondled the beer tap, pretended to care something about the marriage of pressure and malt liquor, held the tap in his hands erotically, lost. Slug chatted up the younger sister of one of our friends just visiting for the weekend; oh Lord, if she only knew where that could lead. Unfortunately, her brother, Mookie, was in no condition to help her avoid a regrettable evening. He had been suckered into a game of Meld, the card game of oblivion, fueled by grain jello shots and risible trivia, emceed by the only one who understood how the rules changed from moment to moment, their resident good old boy and living breathing devil from hell, Pocomoke. And Techno was over in the corner Pavloving that new exchange student he met in the lab. Billy knew her, too, had lunch with her, even, walked with her into class a couple of days ago. Not that he knew her name or anything. She looked out of place, with her black skirt and stockings, tan shirt and necklace. Not like the rest of us, Billy thought. Probably wondering how she got talked into leaving—where was she from? Belgium? Her name was what, Amy, did she say? Something like that. Probably had some weird European spelling—he imagined it Ăîmëé or something. Well, she could do worse than Techno—at least he had a guilty conscience. And it was all just impure thoughts on his resume, too. Still jonesing for his first mortal sin, but they just aren’t all that easy to come by, especially when you’re looking for one.
No, there was no one to help Billy wriggle out of this. Chicago had passed out; it was official. So he sat there for an hour watching a movie on TV—it was in another language and the screen kept going in and out of focus, but that was okay with him, it kind of fit the mood. Even put his arm around limp little her, the best-case approximation of their future married selves he could think of. He slept—no reason to stay awake: among his friends, passing out at a party had traces of social cache, and that’s better than nothing.
At some point, the lights were switched off in the party room. In the darkness, every time he moved a little bit, she fell farther toward him, her chin caught on his arm, her head tilted weirdly. She slipped again, this time between his back and the couch. That wouldn’t do. He stood up, tried to catch her as she fell. He missed and her head bounced, but she ended up looking natural there on the couch, more or less. His head felt foggy—it was time to get out, leave the incriminating evidence behind. What a stupid party, anyway.
He took a step toward the door, then turned back. He couldn’t leave her like this, so he lifted her legs up off the floor, arranged them like she was sleeping, so at least she looked a little bit comfortable. Then he walked out of the party room and out the front door into the Southern night. Not many people were out at that early hour.
Here is how parties flow: early in the night, people are outside, eager to be seen, loud and wild, nothing but possibilities, pure potential energy. Those hours spin past; everyone carefully nurtures the energy around them, feeds kindling to the young fire like that guy in the Yukon who walked from Sulfur Creek to meet the boys and kept getting killed by fate or bad decisions or nature or god with a small g. By about this time in the sweet Southern magnolia blossom night, it becomes clear who has survived at the warming fire and who has frozen to death in the Yukon. You’ve either got a basket full o’potential energy waiting for you in her room—brushing her hair, considering how kinetic to get with you—or you got nothing.
Billy was not optimistic by nature, but he told stories in his own mind where he didn’t end up alone at the end of every night, and that was closer than some of the other guys got to having something actually happen, something real and true that another person could verify. He walked across the quad and heard some life in the distance over by the student center.
A walk in the garden would be the best thing.
Maybe a freight would roll through.
Maybe he’d see a raccoon.
Hands in pockets, her feigned a purposeful walk. No telling who might be watching, and if they saw him, they might think he actually had a reason to be out so late. Who knows, maybe he’d get lucky and someone would assume that reason had to do with another living, breathing person. The gardens were at the edge of campus, a series of postcard paths winding through trees and clearings, perpetual summer, flowers everywhere all year round. For a northern kid, this kind of climate seemed like cheating, like if you couldn’t stand a little bit of snow for three months out of the year then you weren’t really living. Magnolia blossoms hung limp from the branches—they had peaked weeks ago and now the petals sagged after a season of procreation the way Billy imagined everyone on campus (except for him and his friends) at that moment: wilted, spent, sticky and sweating in sheets not your own, a bony arm to sleep on, trying to find a comfortable position, thinking of a way to slip away without talking, wondering how History class will go with all of this new… depth.
Billy found himself against a tree among many trees, forehead pressed into the bark, punching the trunk gently with both hands, a heavyweight in the late rounds, adrenaline long since spent. The tree leaned out from the edge of a large clearing, a spot where the garden path curved down the hillside from its leafy summit. It would have to do. He unzipped, phaser set to kill, and the golden arc made lakes and archipelagoes in the roots at his feet. He pissed cathartically, cleared his bladder and his mind, mostly anyway. The party ran in thin rivulets toward his feet. He remembered being a boy and playing with water in the mud. In first grade a nun made him sit in a closet in his underwear while she washed his clothes. Nice.
He stepped away from the urine and rubbed his eyes. Tall wrought iron lampposts lit up the path at long intervals—most of the path was dark, but as long as the next lamp post was visible, a nightwalker’s mind could fill in the way to the next donut of brightness. Five lights down, on the other side of the clearing, a person, bent at the waist. Billy wiped his eyes again, stretched.
A woman was down there.
He thought about staying there to watch her, but that would be too weird. Calling to her? She’d have a heart attack, think he was going to kill her or something. Best to take these things head on. Hands in pockets, he walked toward her on the path, feigning again that he had a purpose. He would say something like “Hello” as he passed and make eye contact and everything to let her know she was safe.
He passed the first light; she didn’t look up. Four more to go.
What could she be doing? Is she sick? Is she demented? She looked okay. Familiar, even. He hoped it wasn’t going to be one of those drunk moms who showed up in the weirdest places on parents weekend.
The woman looked up, startled. Billy tried his best to smile, to put her at ease. But it had been a mistake. Better that he had hidden in the underbrush and waited for her to pass than to have an encounter like this. He’d be lucky if campus security didn’t arrest him like they did when he dressed as a Cuban sniper last Halloween. (How can a person dress like that without getting into the spirit of the thing, too? That’s what Billy wanted to know.)
Too late now, he kept on walking.
She waved, smiled.
One more light.
Black skirt, black stockings, tan shirt, necklace. That exchange student.
What was her name?
She waved to him, said “Come over here.”
He looked over her shoulder for anyone else—no, they were alone. “Come on!” she urged. He tried to walk confidently, tried to suck in his stomach, throw his shoulders back a bit. She crouched at the edge of the path with her back to him, her skirt stretched tight against her backside, faint vertical valley at the center of it. He could see bra straps beneath the silk blouse. Closer, a single hair, one of hers, stood straight up from the top of her head, held aloft by what, body heat? The electricity of her body?
Billy almost fainted. What could he do? What could he say? Nothing came to him.
At her side now, knees weak, mouth dry, he wiped his hands on his jeans. For a moment, stupidly, he stood looking down at her, convinced if he stood there long enough he could feel the convection of her body, the warmth of another living person, rising to meet him.
She looked up, smiled. “Down here,” she pointed at the bright edge of the lamplight in the grass. Billy crouched, dropped to one knee awkwardly next to her. “Here, and here!” For a moment he did not see, then, startled, he leaned away. “There!” she breathed, and hooked her arm in his.
Billy looked down at the fragrant circle of light cast by the lamp in the thick grass. Millions of insects massed, climbed, chirped, clutched, and shivered. A sharp line separated bright and dark; in the darkness, there were no bugs at all. Inside, a wild celebration of illumination.
Amy leaped to the shadow directly beneath the lamppost, the dark center of the bright donut of light. Her blouse billowed, made Billy gasp. She landed in the bug-less and black circle at lamp’s base, the holy land of the insect pilgrimage, the glowing circle around her, a writhing carpet of devotion.
Billy dropped to both knees outside the circle and watched as she held the light post with one hand, leaned in closer to the ground, laughed at something she saw at her feet, laughed at these things that craved illumination, their tender little lives, their simple desire to escape the darkness, to wait through long sunlit days to be there when this miracle happened.
Billy leaned forward to watch colors dance through Amy’s black hair, strangely luminescent, as if giving off its own pale glow. He whispered “I’m right here” to the air, to the light.
The warm breeze found the back of his neck, made him shiver.
Bill Gillard is a teacher of creative writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. His writing has appeared in dozens of journals, and he is the author of the poetry collection, The Vade Mecum of the True Sublime, and two chapbooks, Ode to Sandra Hook and Desire, the River. He is co-author of Speculative Modernism, a study of the origins of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He is the Fiction Editor at the literary magazine, Masque and Spectacle. He earned an M.F.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University, is a recovering youth hockey coach, and lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, with his wife and two daughters.