Sonia Ruiz

[JUNIOR YEAR (FOR SCOTT FRANCIS McNAMARA), LATE MAY

SEMI-FINISHED BASEMENT

$940,000 HOME; DAKOTA HILLS NEIGHBORHOOD; GLASGO, MN 554—]

Ginsburg was picking at the corner of the red foam couch with his pocketknife. It was late, but not too late, and the sun had only set a few hours ago. You could see starlight out the basement window, if you craned your neck a little, like Scott was. He was sitting on the other side of the couch. It was Juliet’s basement, Juliet “No-I’m-Not-Named-After-The-Damn-Play-You-Know-She-Kills-Herself-At-The-End-Right?-It’s-Actually-Not-That-Romantic” O’Leary’s basement that Scott and the people he Knew had commandeered for the night. Juliet’s parents were out of town. They were both insurance claims adjusters, and each year the insurance claims adjusters of the upper Midwest had a convention “in Minot or wherever,” per Juliet. Juliet didn’t throw parties. She had “gatherings,” as she called them in the messages she sent the whole group. Gatherings. She hated the word party. “Makes it seem like you’ve got a future frat asshole nude on the front lawn swilling vodka and Gatorade or whatever,” she said. It was a gathering now. There were ten or eleven of them in the basement. They were in the Couch Room now, and the Couch Room was connected to the CDs and Bullshit room, where the O’Leary-Stinson family kept their CDs and most of their bullshit, then there was a passage to what the people Scott Knew ironically called the Solarium (it had two tiny slit windows instead of one), then the Chamber, elided from Execution Chamber after they’d decided that it wasn’t actually a funny joke but had already got used to saying the name, so called because it was a windowless cinderblock room with a blood-red pool table and a black-and-white checked floor and Juliet swore there had been mob movies shot there in the Seventies. Scott knew all the names. He’d learned them early on. He’d actually been the one to coin Solarium, and he was proud of it. It really didn’t help the whole thing with Juliet’s name that she was in theater and had a thing for always doing Shakespeare for her auditions. Maybe that was why she never got callbacks, at least not for Main Stage Shows at GHS. She got roles in weird productions in basement theaters uptown; it was always her and a couple of creeps in some show a sixth-year Lit/Anthro/General Marxism triple major up at the U had written. They’d gone to see her a few times. She had a flair for underperforming. One director had called her the most natural actor he’d ever met, which might have been because she wasn’t acting. When she performed, it was just like she was talking on stage. She didn’t believe in stage acting. Now that Scott considered it, maybe she’d never got a GHS Main Stage role because she refused to act. Did she know how to act? He doubted it. The khnick-khnick-khnick-khnick of Ginsburg’s knife along the other side of the couch was starting to get to Scott. The way Scott was lying hurt his back. Berlin said it was the way you lie when you kiss the Blarney Stone. But you could see the stars. Scott didn’t believe it, that here, on the outer fringes of an inner-ring suburb of a pretty damn big metro, you could see stars. But there they were. The only girlfriend he’d ever had had taught him to recognize Orion by his belt. It was easy. Orion’s Belt was shining, shimmering above them in the sky. Juliet was dating Berlin. Everyone called him Berlin because he’d gone to Berlin over spring break. Before that, he was Todd, because his parents had named him Todd. Ginsburg, from the sound of it, was getting beneath the foam layer. The sound was harder and sharper.

“The fuck are you doing, Ginsburg?” asked Berlin, finally.

“Whittling,” Ginsburg said without looking up. Ginsburg was the sculptor. He wore sunglasses indoors and spent some of his weekends with his Finnish grandfather, firing pottery. He had a beard so terrible that some of its terribleness had to be intentional.

Scott lifted his head up. The others were watching some movie on the grainy old cathode ray TV, twice as deep as it was long or wide; they were watching some movie Juliet had on DVD. There was a guy smoking a cigarette as he drove. Chicago was crisp in the deadening rain. The music was purposeful. It was fuzzed-out and sad.

“I have to say — ” Kate said.

“Christ,” muttered Berlin.

“I have to say,” Kate said, glancing darkly at Berlin, “this whole movie’d be a whole lot more affecting if they hadn’t sold out.”

“Don’t think you know what it means to sell out,” Juliet said.

“What do you mean?”

“Who’d they sell out to?” Juliet was sitting between Scott and Ginsburg on the red foam couch Ginsburg was intent on stripping to its bare bones. Berlin was sprawled on the floor. He was slowly glaciating down from a sitting position. Half an hour ago, he’d been holding Juliet’s hand. Now, he was kind of clinging onto the toe of her bright orange running shoes, as if that was an adequate substitute. “They were the ones who got sold out. They founded their own label; if that’s selling out …” She trailed off.

“Sellout doesn’t just mean you go to some crossroads and give some asshole in a suit your soul in exchange for a magic guitar or whatever,” Kate said.

“You’re thinking of Robert Johnson,” Juliet answered. “I don’t think a Mephistophelian bargain makes you a sellout.”

Scott wondered idly if it was because his friends used words like Mephistophelian that he assumed they Knew him.

“Huh,” Kate said, ending the conversation.

The only light in the room was the flickering from the TV screen. The motionless group made a nice tableau: the lost kids, the dead-eyed ones, swimming in a blue ethereal ocean one moment, the next light and dark flickering across their faces, casting momentary shadows, alpine thunderstorm shadows, around the room.

Juliet stood up. She stood up in one fluid motion, which didn’t give Berlin enough time to get his hand off of her toes. His face took on a Cubist quality as his fingers got smashed. Juliet walked over to one of the four mini fridges that lined the back wall of the Couch Room, humming and rattling, and got out a beer with a cutely drawn owl on the label.

“Try some,” Juliet said to Myra, who didn’t like beer. “It’s from Chicago. Microbrewed.” Myra, who was lying nearly prostrate on the Couch of Many Colors, took the bottle without a word. She took a sip, shook her head, and handed it back to Juliet immediately.

“Microbrewed isn’t a verb,” Lindsay said.

“The English language is a dynamic thing,” Juliet said as she took the bottle back from Myra and settled back onto the couch.

Juliet. In eighth grade, she and Scott had had, in the parlance of the time, a Thing. A Thing was as ambiguous as its name suggested. It was the precursor to a relationship, maybe. It was tangible. It was an object. They had become friends in English class, from a group project (that was how middle school was). They had superficial similarities in taste, so they would chat. One day, during an especially boring lecture, he noticed her absentmindedly waving her hands; she was playing an invisible piano, he surmised. So, he asked her what she was playing. As it turned out, it was a song that he also knew. For a few weeks or maybe a month thereafter, during lunch every day, the two of them would go to a practice room where the school kept its bottom-of-the-shelf electric pianos. One of them would sit on the edge of the piano bench and the other would occupy more of it, and that one would play a song. He could sing. She couldn’t sing, but she gave it a try, and he appreciated it. They were terrible at piano, or at least at the songs they were playing, but it was more fun that way.

That was all it took to constitute a Thing in eighth grade. It never went beyond the occasional brush of a hand when they tried ill-conceived duets. It dissolved when she went on a family trip to London and missed school for a week; when she came back, they ate lunch in the cafeteria, with others.

Scott didn’t miss Juliet, but he missed the innocence of Things. He loathed himself for thinking this way, but he missed the weirdly Victorian ethos of it all.

They barely got five minutes of silent movie-watching in before Lindsay declared, in not quite so many words, that the group might benefit from getting really stoned, and asked who’d be interested.

Nobody spoke up immediately. Ginsburg raised his pocketknife in lieu of raising his hand. Berlin shot him an acid look. Berlin hated Ginsburg. He thought that Ginsburg only got to hang out with them because they needed a silent artistic type to balance out the group. His opinion wasn’t a secret; Berlin told everyone who’d listen.

“I’m not calling Dave unless it’s more than just me and Ginsburg,” Lindsay said. Dave was Lindsay’s dealer, a friend of her older brother, a semi-burnout with a Master’s in Philosophy who (to his immense pride) lived in the only apartment building in his faraway exurb.

“Fine,” said Elaine.

“I guess,” said Mattias.

“I’ll call him up,” said Lindsay.

They kept watching their movie. Nothing happened, of course. This wasn’t a movie where things happened. They disapproved of those sorts of movies, except for Annie Hall and once in a while something in French. They much preferred movies that mirrored their own lives, where disaffected young people sat around and talked about how disaffected they were.

Scott felt it coming on early enough. He had no idea what the trigger was. Trigger — of course that was the word. It was an either/or proposition. Now it was happening. And like every other time it happened, he would try and fight it off, and it wouldn’t work.

“He’s caught in traffic,” Lindsay announced a few minutes later.

“It’s ten-thirty,” said Mattias, incredulous.

Lindsay’s face was backlit by her phone. “He’s out past Lake Minnetonka, and everything’s closed for construction. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it here before midnight,” she said, forlorn.

Nobody else seemed to care very much.

Anxiety was such an insufficient word. What happened to Scott was more like demonic possession. That was how he explained it to people who were willing to listen. It seized his body and his soul. It tightened his chest and his veins and tensed his nerves. It made him feel as if the whole world was spinning and caving in all at once, and yet there was never any cathartic fall. It didn’t stop at the physical, though. It took over his mind, and it was such a good mimic of him. It knew what he sounded like. It could tell him the most vile, the most disgusting things, and yet it would sound as if he himself were the one thinking them.

The opening tremors were coming on.

The perpetual soft conversation continued over the film. It turned, eventually, to the dead romantics, to the people (mostly singers) who’d killed themselves, shot themselves or stabbed themselves or stopped their hearts with pills. It was unspoken, that suicide was what tied together these people (mostly young and male and horribly thin), but from listening even for a few seconds it was clear.

In Scott’s head, the pressure was building. He wanted it to go away, and he knew that it wasn’t helping anything to sit in the corner stewing, so he figured it might help if he spoke:

“What do you figure it’s like,” he asked them, regarding a suicide who’d released five beloved albums then died locked in the bathroom, “having that much inside?”

“Huh?” asked Berlin, who had been discussing the merits of this singer’s third album, the one that had brought him the kind of scratchy-throated near-fame that came to some in the late Nineties.

“To feel that deeply,” Scott said. He was slouched against the couch, and his feet were on the coffee table, pretending at being comfortable. “To see beauty like that.”

“Don’t think it’s worth it to have that sense of beauty if it makes you jump off a cliff,” said Kate.

Scott was silent for a few moments. He looked glassy-eyed toward the TV but didn’t watch it. “Still, though. Being able to know that not everything’s shit — that’s worth something, right? Being able to love? Being able to worry and anger and love?”

“Sure,” Kate replied. “Still don’t think it’s worth it.”

“That’s not what I’m — ” Scott stopped himself before he finished. He told himself, sometimes, that it was when he was nervous that he forgot how to talk. Other times, he told himself he’d never learned how to talk anyway, how to pass the right signals along.

In his mind, he nearly said: Look. It’s tragic. There’s nothing romantic about killing yourself. I just wish there was, uh … I wish there was a medium, I guess. Something between being so acutely aware of the despairs and joys of the world that you get whiplash and just not being able to understand that there’s authenticity on Earth.

In real life, in the basement, he said nothing more. He stayed silent and watched the disaffected people on TV. And the conversation moved on, floating in and out of his consciousness.

The Panic was coming on in earnest now. Scott shuffled around on the couch, but he couldn’t get comfortable. It was disturbing. He would shift from side to side, but there was this impossible desire gripping him not to be in one place, to be somewhere else. When he would sit down, it would say, soft and sinister, This isn’t right. This is wrong. Try something else. This isn’t right. This is wrong. Try something else.

“Are we still gonna be around at one?” Lindsay asked. “He’s not gonna come unless he can get a guarantee that we’ll be here at one.”

“Thought you said midnight,” said Berlin.

Scott asked himself: do you remember when you were here last? Remember it. Remember it now. Remember how you were all lying on the floor of the Solarium, which made no sense because the carpet was thin there and there were plenty of couches over here. Remember how you were a gear. Remember how the teeth meshed. Remember how simple it seemed then. Remember when you could make them laugh.

You can’t make them laugh now, Scott told himself, unless it’s laughing at you. They do that, of course. They do that when you leave. You don’t see them do it, but they do it. They laugh at your face and your body and the way you stammer when you talk, the way that you are unable to say what you want to say, the way that you don’t really know what you want to say.

You’re irrational, he told himself in an attempt to talk himself down.

How do you know? he replied.

The air conditioner switched on. It began to hum lightly a few feet from Scott’s ear. It blew cold air across his forehead, which was getting hot. Strange how he noticed these things, these background vibrations, only when the Panic was setting in. Strange how the world seemed to have a rhythm to it.

You don’t know why they let you stay around with them. It might be because they’re goddamn Midwesterners. They wear almost-torn-up clothing and listen to vinyl records and disdain just about everything, but by God, they’re still Midwesterners, and you can’t take the Midwest out of someone. You can’t take that reeking politeness away, and you can’t take away the things that calcified in your brain when you grew up in the Midwest: first and foremost, the idea, the inescapable fact, the foundational truth of social interactions up here that just because someone is being nice to you doesn’t mean that they like you; in fact, if they’re being overly nice, that probably means you’ve done something wrong. There was a kid named Kevin who had hung around with Scott’s group during the midwinter. Every day, they’d be sitting together for lunch, and he’d come and join them. Kevin would sit and eat, and he’d offer commentaries like Oh my God, that’s so fucking gay and What a pussy and I don’t know, I think Matchbox Twenty is pretty sick. And they would tolerate him in their rough Midwestern approximation of the Golden Rule. They listened, and after everything he said, they gave nice little uh-huhs and sures, betraying only to the ear that was willing to listen their disdain for Kevin.

Scott never did figure out what happened to Kevin.

Scott shifted back and forth in his seat compulsively. He figured that these days, he was Kevin.

“Fuck!” Berlin yelled. He was clutching his face around his right eye and holding something small in his left hand. Clearly furious, he sat straight up and looked right at Ginsburg, who was now whittling away at the wood beneath the foam of the couch. “You got a goddamn woodchip in my eye!”

“Sorry,” Ginsburg muttered. He went right on whittling. He didn’t even look at Berlin. You could see the TV screen reflected in his sunglasses.

Juliet, who’d been sitting next to Ginsburg this whole time, finally stood up and looked at what he was doing, upon which she also yelled “Fuck!”

“What?” Ginsburg asked.

“That’s my couch!”

“Yeah,” Ginsburg said in acknowledgment. He looked at her for a few more seconds, then turned around and went back to whittling her couch.

“The fuck are you doing, man?” she asked Ginsburg.

“He’s been doing this for, like, an hour,” Mattias said. “Didn’t you notice?”

“He just said he was whittling,” Juliet said, indignant. “I was watching the movie. I assumed he’d brought some whittling from home, like a normal person or whatever.”

“Shhh,” Myra muttered loudly. She was actually watching the movie.

“I don’t know what’s going on with my eye,” Berlin moaned, his hand quivering.

“It’s fine,” Elaine, who’d seen the incident happen, said.

Ginsburg was bored. He returned to his whittling.

“Stop,” Juliet said, suddenly weary. “Stop.” Ginsburg sat with his knife upraised, statue-still, apparently processing what Juliet said. Then, shoulders slumped in resignation, he folded the knife up and stuck it back in the pocket of his paint-stained jeans.

Juliet. She acted now. She acted in plays that people paid to see. She acted uptown, where the people who mattered lived. She acted by refusing to act, sure, but goddamnit, she knew how to do something. She had a craft, an art. She mattered.

Berlin — he was a writer. He carried around a weathered notebook, and he observed. He was a meaningful person. He mattered.

Ginsburg: that was easy. He mattered. Myra played guitar and wrote sad jagged songs, and she mattered, and Mattias sketched so perfectly, and Jesus Christ Lindsay was smart, and Elaine when she was fifteen stole her mother’s car and drove to Chicago because she was so fed up with the provincial world she knew, and they all mattered, and Scott didn’t. He didn’t have anything. Everything he’d ever got was by luck, filthy luck.

He shook and shivered in place. They’re all noticing you, he thought. They all know what’s going on inside your head. They understand these things. Christ, what a fucking joke: they can figure you out, but you can’t figure them out. Beyond the disdain you know they feel towards you, they’re enigmas, they’re on a higher plane, they don’t care about you.

The air conditioner stopped, and without the stream of cold air across his forehead Scott soon felt even worse. Lindsay and Elaine were talking about a really strange party Elaine had gone to the night before. It was way out in Minnetonka, she said, and it was hosted by the school’s almost-hippies, the socialists in male ponytails who hadn’t stopped believing in love when they were supposed to.

“ — and we’re all on the floor, right, because it’s this beatnik shit and apparently in the Sixties they hadn’t invented chairs yet or whatever, and then Ken turns off the lights. It’s in the basement, so it’s really goddamn dark, and he waits, like, fifteen seconds. It’s just the sound of people breathing, echoing off the tile. And then Ken starts playing guitar really slowly but very loudly, so you know that he’s Trying His Hardest. He’s playing ‘The Sound of Silence,’ and everyone starts singing, and by the end, like half of them are crying.”

“That’s so fucking weird,” Lindsay said.

Scott lay back down, breaking his back over the one still-intact arm of the couch to see out the window again, because that had worked earlier, he had been looking at the stars and it hadn’t felt wrong. And Orion’s belt had moved, it wasn’t up there any more, you could barely see starlight now. The girlfriend who’d showed him Orion — she hadn’t liked him. She’d never liked him. She was the one who asked him on the dates, but she’d never liked him. She’d broken up with him after three months, and her breakup speech seemed so poorly rehearsed. It was like listening to a bad audition. She’d written the damned thing out in her mind, but hadn’t even cared enough about Scott to read it with feeling. She was the only girlfriend he’d ever had, and they’d never even kissed. They would be on a date, and he would be faced with a dilemma: kiss her and be a creep, or stay put and be a loser? And he always chose to be a loser. He always chose to be a loser. That was the worst thing, that it was always a goddamn choice. He would pace around his room on a Friday night, and he could either go to a party and hate himself there or stay home and hate himself and be a loser besides, and he’d always choose to be a loser.

Breathe. Breathe. That was the mantra, that was supposed to be the cure-all for the Panic, but trying to draw in breath slowly and with purpose just felt so wrong when Scott was lying with his back at the wrong angle trying to glimpse the stars and feeling like everyone hated him with good cause. Breathe. It didn’t help. The tightness in his chest was horrible, and the tightness in his skull was horrible, and everyone hated him and the eyes that were looking at him when they looked at him they saw the ugly bastard he was and when they looked away they didn’t give a damn either way he was screwed either way he was such a loser such a loser such a loser such a loser either way he wasn’t able to be happy everyone else knew how and he didn’t and he didn’t know how to be happy and fuck he was a loser he was a creep he was a nightmare he was awful JESUS CHRIST WAS HE AWFUL it was a storm that was it that was how he pictured it sometimes when he closed his eyes and shook and it was such a goddamn cliché but so was he and yeah storms were romantic like wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog romantic but only to people who had the luxury of watching from the outside and Christ Scott could almost see the lightning and once in a while he wished it would just fucking hit him and———

Scott got up. In a practiced imitation of calmness, he stood up and walked carefully across the Couch Room. He walked over Berlin, who was still clutching his eye, and he snaked his way through where Mattias and Kelsey were sitting in folding chairs. He stood in the stairwell, and he almost made some grand pronouncement, like: Hey! I’m leaving! See you guys tomorrow or whenever, but after a sharp intake of breath, he changed his mind and left before anyone knew.

He got his shoes from near the front door, waved goodbye to Juliet’s older brother, who was filling out some sort of paperwork on the dining room table, and tried to walk across Juliet’s enormous, perfectly manicured lawn to the place where his beat-up hatchback was parked by the curb.

Scott made it maybe twenty yards. He sank to his knees, there, on the grass wet in the May dew. He’d left, he’d smelled night air, but the Panic hadn’t stopped tightening.

On his back in the grass, hoping to God nobody saw him like this, Scott glimpsed Orion again. It was on the edge of the suburban horizon, about to slip under the row of budding trees, to fall off the world and be gone.