S. C. Ferguson
End of an Acquaintance
Mary Catherine had called around ten in the morning, already crying, and insisted that I hurry to her parents’ house. It was a sprawling pink manse in an old-money cove of East Memphis, a place that almost split me into two. I would become, simultaneously, a carpet-bagging stranger and an honest Southern gent, pedigreed and worthy of his belle. On the best of these days, my mother’s old Volvo glittered like a chariot. I spoke in easy tones and was certain in my gait. But today, I could tell, wouldn’t be among my best.
I was greeted by Jean, the Eastlakes’ housekeeper. She shuffled back and pointed—each finger was a miracle of hard, arthritic knobs—toward the house’s eastern wing, where my off-again girlfriend had holed herself up in her room.
“Andrew,” Jean said. “She’s in the back. You know the way.”
“Hi, Jean, how you been?” I said.
My parents didn’t have a maid, and I’d always felt uneasy around Jean. This had to do with race, I guess, but Jean distressed me further with her satires of flirtation. She was always calling me handsome, and sometimes she would wink. She’d turn a great skeptical eye, catch me in its beam, then snap it like a lens, as if to capture my unease for all posterity.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “Still handsome as ever.”
“Are Mr. and Mrs. Eastlake here?” I asked, hoping for a no.
“Oh, no. They’re out. Busy as can be.”
But her words today seemed tense (as if she knew something I didn’t), and as she scooted from the foyer to the dining room, I realized Jean hadn’t looked me in the eye, let alone winked, in all the time we’d stood there. I lingered in her absence, hesitant and lanky in the threshold.
The “eastern wing” was really just a hallway that spilled down to the kids’ rooms and the bathroom in between. There was an Oriental runner as expensive as a car. A slick and massive portrait of a toddler Mary Catherine. An air of fine inheritance. The bathroom, though, could throw me. Many times in the previous year, I had sat on Mary Catherine’s bed, watching her dress or paint and waiting (even in her bedroom) for the fickle lights of her attention to sweep back onto me, and had heard the creak of her brother William’s door as he stomped toward the shower or the toilet. The acoustics were especially unpleasant. I could hear within each grunt and flush a confirmation of my strangeness in these rooms—this wing—in which such intimacies whizzed by without comment. Mary Catherine, at these times, would fiddle with a paintbrush or scavenge for a dress, biting down on her pillowy lip, and I’d sit and pine in a Brian Wilson fever dream: If only we were older. If only we could run off and be wed.
I passed the sitting room, with its sofas and its forlorn, giftless Christmas tree, the scent of dying pine. I wasn’t in a hurry to arrive. No matter what she’d tell me, I knew I’d have to play my lamest role: that of forgiving authority. Already, at nineteen, I was like some sweet old benefactor, wronged by his younger, more desirable lady friend, but only too willing, time and again, to bend and relinquish the point. Such willingness seemed the better part of love.
Her door was closed. I turned its knob and breathed deeply, once, like a father pausing at the sickroom of a child. Then I pushed inside.
She was on the bed, clinging to her sheets in a posture of stageworthy anguish. My inner dupe, however, has always had more say-so than the cynic, so I rushed down to the bed and laid a priestlike hand upon her nearest heaving shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I said, a little scared. “It’s okay, it’s all good.”
“How do you know?” she said. Her face was buried in the sheets.
“But what’s wrong? What could be that bad?”
“I just—I just can’t believe it happened.”
"I just can’t believe he’d do that. Or that I’d ever let him.”
All fear was forced aside by the wrathful heat of jealousy.
“Who did what?”
“He’s such a fucking creep. He’s such a fuck.”
“Who is? I can’t help unless you tell me what we’re talking about.”
“Shelby,” she said.
She turned to show one tired and weepy eye.
“Yeah, well,” I said, pretending not to care.
Her words, though, had me riled. Shelby was a couple years ahead of us, a junior at Rhodes who dealt pills and pot and rode, in a dubious Hell’s Angel fantasy, an old Honda motorbike. He was built like a Major-League pitcher, and his nose had been cracked in some long-ago fight, and the thought of his hands on my girlfriend (or ex) drove me to a peak of Darwinian angst.
“What’d he do?”
“We were drunk at Sidney’s,” she began, “and it was, like, three a.m. or something, and everybody had left except Sidney and Marilyn and Shelby and me. Maybe some others, I don’t know. But Shelby and Marilyn had taken this acid, and they were, like, finally coming down, and we were all drinking whiskey, just passing it around.”
“Okay,” I said. I had adopted, already, the gruff tones of the benefactor.
“And then Sidney and Marilyn left for a second, to smoke a cigarette or something, and then it was just Shelby and me, and he was passing me the whiskey. And then he leaned in and—oh, I don’t know.”
She turned to face the wall.
“And then he kissed me,” she said. She flipped around to stare up at the ceiling, and in this moment of confession her small, supine body defied me with its beauty. “And I kissed him back, but only for a second, because I knew I didn’t want to be kissing him, he was just so close and tall and in my face, so I finally pulled away and told him quit. And then the others came back in and that was that.”
“Oh,” I said.
Jealous as I was, this kiss was hardly grounds for hara-kiri. A kind of puzzlement descended, as if we both knew there was more.
“So he kissed you and you told him to stop?”
“Yeah. But it’s not like I asked him to kiss me.”
“Then what’s with the handle of whiskey? And why were y’all alone? You think this shit just happens?”
“What am I, on house arrest?”
She huffed back to the wall.
“And it wasn’t a handle,” she added. “It was a fifth.”
But I’d fallen into silence. I was assimilating the wound. It had occurred to me by then that she was doing her best to out-victim me. I had seen her around Shelby, and Shelby around her, and if there was anything I knew about Mary Catherine Eastlake, it was her need, all but unassuageable, for the attentions of the opposite sex. At the parties where we’d all crossed paths, and where I’d eyed him from a distance with a rival’s cool disdain, I’d learned that Shelby Barlow—that menthol-puffing pillhead who rode his Honda everywhere and affected the aloofness of a Beat poet—was nothing if not attentive.
It wasn’t a mystery, in other words, that he’d kissed Mary Catherine. Still less of a mystery was the fact she’d kissed him back.
“I’m not saying I blame you,” I said.
“Oh, God,” she said, sobbing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I didn’t ask for it to happen how it did.”
The facts had somehow shifted. Grave, implicit truths now seemed to dance behind her words. Most guys, then, would have pressed on with their questioning. But not the benefactor.
“It’s okay,” I said. “If that’s all that happened, it’s not that big a deal.”
“I know, it’s just—” Her hands dropped to her lap. “I mean, God, he’s such an asshole.”
But then she’d sat up, and she was reaching up to hug me, and as I leaned down to accept the quiet shudder of her sobs it occurred to me that, no matter what had happened, it was a testament to something (our love? a more mysterious fidelity?) just to be here in her bedroom, to have heard her semi-confession and been trusted to administer my patient absolution.
“I love you,” she said, for the first time in months.
“I love you, too,” I said.
Her beauty, in that moment, almost punctured me. She was blonde with streaks of brown, and though her blue-green eyes could flash at times with insolence or spite, they were, just then, alight with loving tears. In a moment we were kissing, then ripping at our clothes, and then I was behind her, conveying not only my love for Mary Catherine, but also my hatred of Shelby, who I fantasized was sitting just across from us, duct-taped to a chair, forced to watch us rut and vent our hearts.
The little death that shadows sex didn’t creep up on us afterwards—or at least I didn’t feel it. I didn’t even wonder about Shelby. It was if we’d each expelled him—exorcised him, even—with our actions.
“I fucking love you,” I said, still panting from it all. “I mean, shit, what have we been doing? Why aren’t we back together? You know? Like, why don’t we just go for it?”
She sighed and laid her head against my shoulder.
“It just feels right,” I said, “you know?”
She began to rub my pink and hairless chest. I sighed myself and eyed the wall next to us, which was covered with photos and dark little clusters of bubbly print where, in earlier days, Mary Catherine and her girlfriends had Sharpied straight onto the wall. Drawn beside a clipping of a grinning Johnny Depp was a caption that read: Mary Catherine is hawt! Another note exclaimed, beneath a nerdy-sexy picture of the nebbish Adam Brody: I luv Harriet! Harriet rox! And around all this, climbing the wall in an ivy-like profusion, were post cards and prints showing classic works of art: the love scenes of Klimt, the torments of Munch, and (Mary Catherine’s favorite) Egon Schiele’s jagged nudes.
This palimpsest of clippings and doodles and art had impressed me as a record of her life. But in the silence that followed my outburst, this wall said something else. I imagined myself as one more layer on its face, or even just a note: Andrew wuz here! or Andrew luvz MC!
I felt moved again to say something, but my thoughts were interrupted by that old noise from the bathroom: the whine of William’s door, the clomp of boots on tile. I heard the shower roar to life and William, with gleeful disregard for the calendar or clock, sing out to himself: “And though it’s been said… many times, many ways… Merry Christmas… to you!”
The holiday was three days gone. I sat up fast and scrambled for my pants.
¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
Four months before, at the CK’s on Perkins (our plates picked clean and shoved off to the side), Mary Catherine had explained our whole “dynamic.”
“If you really want the truth,” she’d said, “I think the normal roles are all switched up. I’m much more like the man in this thing. You’re—and look, I hate to say it—you’re way more like the girl.”
Our window framed the railroad and the haggard park beyond. I was listening and picking at the menu, the greasy corners of the laminate.
“Hold up,” I said. “You think that’s fair?”
“Some people just hate to be crowded. They can’t reciprocate those needs. It’s a question of brain chemistry and, you know, of genetics. I wasn’t built for all the jealousy and questioning. Women need to breathe. People need to breathe, I mean.”
She sounded, on the one hand, like a favorite old uncle laying out the facts. On the other she was lovely, more imperious than ever. I wasn’t the benefactor then. I was the servant, good and cowed.
“Sure,” I was saying. “Sure, I guess I get it.”
“And the last time I checked,” she went on, “you and I are young, and we’re not married. And we’d hate to be tied up at college—not when we first get there. That’s not us.”
I looked intently at the menu, something I’d learned as a kid. Whenever a coach or a teacher chewed me out, I’d fixate on a single point before me. A crack in the pavement. A divot in the field. Now it was a patty melt, one bright dish in a spread of immaculate diner foods, staged and shot in a dream of 80s marketing. This picture smacked of other worlds.
“I hear you,” I said, though all I’d heard was “hate” and “married.”
“It just wouldn’t be fair,” she said. “For either of us.”
When I didn’t answer, she leaned forward and, without once touching her glass, took the straw between her lips. She sucked up some Coke—like a child, I thought—then sat back and turned to the window. I looked down at the menu, narrowing my gaze in a mockery of interest.
But then she didn’t speak, and neither did I, and my fake interest shifted into something more genuine. Here were all these sandwiches, with airbrushed buns and glistening, dew-misted toppings, in an unknown time and place, remote as any star. There was something reassuring in these images. A world devoid of pain. A sybaritic wonder-realm of perfect eggs and hash browns. But then, as our silence grew to encompass the booth, this realm became depressing: a place where she and I did not exist.
When I looked up, she was frowning. I detected some remorse.
“I’ll miss you, though,” I said.
“Sure,” she said, and I thrilled with rare defiance.
“But I doubt that makes me a girl,” I said. “Last time I checked, my dick works just fine.”
“That’s not what I meant. You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Guess I didn’t hear you right.”
“I was talking traditional roles. Retrograde stuff. It was a compliment, basically. All I meant was that you’re sensitive.”
“Sure,” I said. “Uh-huh.” Already my spirits were flagging.
“And that’s not even important,” she said. “The important part is that we’re free to try new things and, you know, enjoy ourselves without the burdens or the grief of a long-distance deal. In some ways, it’s the best gift we could give each other. And if you really think about it…”
But this noblest of lectures on the gifts and debts of love had already driven me inward—or outward, that is, to a point beyond our window.
There, in the lot, a woman in a Range Rover was struggling to park between my Volvo and an ancient F-150. She hadn’t turned sharply enough, and now she lurched back with obvious impatience. When she’d parked at last and stepped down from the car, my assumptions were confirmed. She was fortyish and expensively dressed, with a dancer’s frame and that fine cyborg look one acquires through plastic surgery. I stared on without shame, my defiance coursing through me.
But Mary Catherine hadn’t noticed. She was leading us both through some sad hypotheticals—the rites of college ruined by our burdens. I heard a phrase or two and nodded automatically, though my eyes were on the woman as she rooted through her purse and locked her car, then bent to fix the buckle on a calf-length leather boot. Freedom wasn’t pain, I told myself. This gift was not as cruel as I had thought. And as the woman rose and glided to the entrance, I imagined her naked, or clad in nothing but her heels, the frank cosmetic sheen of her breasts and thighs and buttocks, each impossible contour waxed and smooth as paradise.
“And who knows?” Mary Catherine was saying. I turned to find her squinting at her Coke. “Maybe we could, like, reassess after a month or three. See how we feel.”
Our eyes now met, and my fantasy crumbled. Whatever manhood I could claim was inextricable from her.
“I guess we could,” I said.
I looked down at the patty melt.
“You okay?” she asked.
“No, really,” she said, and smiled. Once again she was the girl who had explained to me, in a shining fit of zealotry, the scope of af Klint’s genius, had listened, in turn, as I spieled wildly on Mingus and Monk. Her concern, like all our passions, now seemed real.
“I just want what’s best for us both,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “me too.”
“Alright then,” she said. Gone was her concern. All was now avuncular—controlled. “Shall we?”
I was confused at first, but then she stood and started for the exit. I placed a twenty on the bill and rose to follow, and as I trailed some feet behind we also neared the older woman’s booth. She was alone, drinking coffee, maybe waiting for a friend. In a final bold thrill I decided to gaze at her, to draw forth her own gaze, but her eyes were to the menu and its laminated wonders, and in a moment I had passed her. My defiance paled to guilt.
We stepped out into the heat, where the train was ripping past. Its cars had all been tagged—infected, it seemed—with great swaths of graffiti, and now a sadness tremored through me, though I said nothing. I didn’t even look at Mary Catherine.
We waited at the curb, mute against the passing of the train.
¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
The sequence of events is both essential and irrelevant. Let’s just say that, after our reunion in her bedroom—after exorcising Shelby and, in effect, throwing off my cuckold’s horns—I clung to Mary Catherine as if we’d never broken up. She was oddly amenable. That Christmas break ended, we returned to our respective schools (Vandy for me, App. State for her), and we committed at last to a long-distance deal. Then, in the spring, she told me she’d decided to transfer.
“To where?” I asked.
“Belmont. In Nashville.”
“To be my girlfriend?”
“Well, not only that,” she laughed, “but I guess that’s a positive side effect. A little lagniappe, if you will.”
It was a miracle, in fact—the first of two—and with it my fever dream cooled to reality. We were one step closer to a love that wouldn’t end.
The spring semester finished, and we both went back to Memphis and prepared for our new life. Then, in mid-June, Mary Catherine hit me with the second of her miracles, which brought me, it seemed, to the edge of all possible happiness.
She’d concluded that we needed some excitement. And so, on a whim, we climbed into the Volvo and drove down to New Orleans, where her debit card scored us a French Quarter suite. It was one of that neighborhood’s lesser hotels, a joint with a tropical courtyard that felt, in the best sense, un-American. We walked the streets and took our meals in tourist spots and grand old Creole flagships, whatever matched our moods. To the hostesses and waiters, we must have looked like any other college kids, but I enjoyed the sweet delusion that she and I were newlyweds, come down on our honeymoon. Of course I didn’t say this. Our honesty had limits even then. But in that world beyond our parents’ homes, the thick walls of our campuses, I felt as if I’d entered on a brave new stage of manhood, and that Mary Catherine, as she drank her wine or wiped the stain of crawfish from her lips, resembled someone’s perfect, pretty wife. Why not mine?
Again, I didn’t say this. But this nuptial fascination must have bled into my actions, the tenor of my words, because Mary Catherine, on our second night there, brought it up herself. (And here’s that second miracle.) We were dancing on Toulouse St., the DJ spinning unembarrassed disco, when she took my arm and shouted in my ear:
“I think I could marry you. I really think I could.”
Never have I undergone a swifter redirection of the blood. I kissed her as we stumbled to the sidewalk, where we tripped, entwined, to a neighboring stoop. Everything was ecstasy. Everything was love and disbelief.
“I’d, like, do that in a heartbeat,” I said.
She rested on the steps as I stood looming on the pavement.
“We could, you know, have kids and shit,” I said.
“Or, like, move to New York.”
“Anywhere. For sure. Anything you want.”
We were on our way back to the hotel and our bed when the magic of her words became most potent. There, at the corner of Royal St., the dull glow of the sky above the parapets and ironwork afforded me a vision of the heavens. I comprehended in the broadest but most agreeable terms our relation to the sun, the scattered gallery of stars, and my place, just then, upon the surface of the world. But far from overwhelming me, this vision was a comfort. The moon and sun and earth and stars seemed charmingly small and coherent. And it felt only right to be walking that street, arm in arm with that girl, as the sky shone faintly and our scrappy little planet effected one more spin upon its axis. It did not occur to me that all my happiness was tied to the illusion of her constancy, and I didn’t stop to think about the rarity of episodes like this one. And in that semi-foreign city, distracted by our joy and by this vision of the sky, I neglected to remember Shelby Barlow, whose presence had so darkened our relationship.
I returned to Memphis freer than I’d ever felt before.
¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
But Nashville, when we got there, didn’t treat us right. The shady green village of the Vanderbilt campus felt whole galaxies away from Belmont’s sparse and mall-like quad, with its perplexing mix of artists and musicians (atheistic cynics, one and all) and wide-eyed future youth group leaders. Her new crew of friends was overwhelmingly male, and each was something cool but vaguely silly, an ironic mandolinist, say, with a barista gig and stick-and-poke tattoos. In each I saw a subtle trace of Shelby, whom I clearly hadn’t driven from my mind, and whom, in fact, I’d hated all along.
One drunken night at a Vanderbilt kegger, I told her these people weren’t really her friends: They all just wanted to fuck her. She stormed out of the party and hailed a taxi back to Belmont, where she proceeded to ignore me for a week.
By Thanksgiving, though, she’d mostly come around, and she wielded this forgiveness like an axe above my head. It made her playful, almost frisky. All the way to Memphis, as we drove home for the break, she tinkered with the radio, rolling down her window to sing into the wind, then rolling it back when a song she liked ended.
“Quit that,” I said. She was lowering the window for at least the fifth time.
“What?” she said, “you don’t like Cher?”
“Not since she left Sonny.”
“Oh yeah?” she said. Her nostrils—those bells of flesh a man could almost kiss—were flaring.
“Joking,” I said. “Just quit it with the window. And the music. It’s fucking blaring.”
“Well we’d hate to displease the master of the radio.”
She rolled it up again, and in the freshly sealed cockpit, Cher’s low croon asserted its dominion.
“It seems that someone,” she said, lowering the volume, “doesn’t care about life after love.”
“Okay. Whatever. If it really makes you happy, roll it down. Stick your head out into traffic. Have a ball.”
But she didn’t touch the window, and the volume stayed lowered—to a maddening seep that reminded me, somehow, of carpool as a child. We drove on without speaking, until at last the city rose in dusty silhouette.
“They’re turning the Pyramid,” she said, “into a fishing store.”
“A Bass Pro Shop.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. I’d known this, but the surprise of it, the scandal, hadn’t faded. Each time I came home, Memphis seemed uglier, and the forces of nostalgia were routed by the facts of sprawl and blight. There was nothing to be done. I barreled on through Germantown, pushed beyond the park and westward ho.
We were squarely in East Memphis (that leafy fortress of nostalgia) when she cut off the radio and demanded more than asked, “So I’ll see you at Sidney’s? Tomorrow night?”
“But I thought we’d watch Straw Dogs? In the pool house? Hoffman on the warpath. Nothing like it.”
“I haven’t seen them in forever.”
Her pronoun held a world: Sidney, Marilyn, Heather, Aubrey Ann—and, peeling toward the curb on his little belching Honda, Shelby Barlow, a name we hadn’t uttered in a year.
“I know,” I said, not even trying not to whine, “but it’s, like, such a good movie.”
“It can wait.”
The axe of her forgiveness seemed to twirl above my head.
“Right,” I said. “Okay.”
And then I’d turned onto her driveway, and she’d leaned in to kiss me, and the fragrance of her skin and hair and the lavender she dabbed against her neck and wrists each morning had settled in a cloud before my face, and then she’d climbed out of the car and pulled her duffel from the trunk.
“Come scoop me tomorrow,” she called up from behind. “I’ll text you after dinner with my folks.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure, I guess that’s cool.”
“Good,” she said.
And so the axe was stayed.
¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
I mentioned at the start that her parents’ house could split me into two. That’s because I’m not a Southerner, at least not really. My own parents hail from the stolid Midwest, with its fields and unflappable barns. It is a different kind of place, and though my parents moved away and my father found success in Tennessee, it was the limited success of a man from somewhere else. The Eastlake house, however, inspired in me a dream of aristocracy. I wanted to belong to it—its people and its world—though Mary Catherine scorned it all, pursued instead a life of small rebellions.
Sidney was a part of these revolts. Her parents were neglectful alcoholics, and she’d attended not Hutchison or St. Mary’s or even St. Agnes, but Central, a public school with a drab façade and drabber city uniforms. Mary Catherine’s childhood friends—the Hutchison girls beside whom she’d first crawled, then swum with in the U Club pool, then spun beside in Maypole celebrations—never would have braved a Central party. They’d never, for instance, post up at a duplex in the badlands of North Memphis, drop into an underworld of punks and junior junkies. But this was Sidney’s party, and this was where we’d found ourselves.
We walked up the steps to a porch thick with smokers, then on into a living room that stank of spilled beer and was chock-full of people I knew, but just barely. I felt my shoulders tighten out of instinct.
Sidney—a hippie-ish girl with the small, gleaming face of a dissolute nymph—was posed on a couch, reciting some story from Bonnaroo. When Mary Catherine spotted her, she gasped with joy (a sound I didn’t trust) and scrambled into Sidney’s waiting arms.
“MC! My queen!” said Sidney.
“Sidney Sweet!” said Mary Catherine.
I edged up to this scene—a footman, a stooge.
“Camp,” Sidney said, nodding my way.
Then the girls let go, and Mary Catherine rose to recompose herself.
“What the fuck is up?” continued Sidney. “How’s Nashville? How’s life?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “Same shit, different city.”
I was suddenly embarrassed. I never knew, at parties, how closely I should cling to Mary Catherine. Should I linger like a bodyguard, or rotate from a distance, tethered but unseen? Or should I disappear, then show up again at appropriate intervals? I had no idea, but at least I’d brought a twelve-pack, which I used as my excuse to peel away. If the girls saw me leave, they were too busy chatting to say anything.
The fridge in Sidney’s kitchen was stuffed with the usual booze, the ranks of beer and cheap wine and mixers unbroken by actual nourishment. The sink, meanwhile, held towers of plates, and a trash bag lay slumped and leaking in a corner. Against the far wall, inured to it all or intrepidly horny, a couple stood kissing and dry-humping.
I stocked up the beers, pulling one out for myself, then popped it and turned to the living room. It was there that I spotted the true source of my dread, which I’d struggled to suppress with Dionysian pre-gaming: Shelby was standing just ten feet away, fishing a cig from a soft-pack of Newports. He was tall and lean and muscled and ringleted, with a head (I thought) like Alexander the Great’s.
He spotted me, too. Then he waved.
I’d spoken to Shelby just three or four times in my life, and only at parties like this one. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d met, and, being no more than acquaintances, we lacked any grounds for enthusiasm. But he was smiling at me, and now he waved again, and I was so touched to be recognized by so leonine a figure that I forgot, for a second, that I hated him.
I hurried on over while he waited by the door, his cigarette poised between index and thumb.
“What’s good?” he asked when I’d made it.
“Not shit, man. How you been?”
“Fine, man, you know. Just living the dream.”
“Word,” I said. And in the little lull that followed, I couldn’t help noting his jawline, the mangled terrain of his pugilist’s nose, and recalling in an instant who we were.
“I was just stepping out,” Shelby said.
“Could I bum one?”
I followed him out to the porch, which curved in an L around the house’s battered front. Some guys I didn’t recognize were smoking by the door, and Shelby walked around them to the corner, where he tossed me the pack and a lighter. I was buzzing, by then, with resentment and nerves, that queasy titillation that you feel before a fight.
“So what you been up to?” I asked.
“Not much, dude. Rhodes is chill. Easy as shit. But, you know, chill.”
His voice was low and slurred. He sounded like a coach with a flask in his pocket.
“That’s what’s up.”
“What about you? You in Oxford?”
“Oh, word,” Shelby said, and even in the dark, I could see he was confused—as if he didn’t, in fact, remember who I was.
“I’m at Vandy.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, though he seemed unconvinced.
“It’s chill. Kind of boring. But Nashville’s pretty sick. Like, tons of great bars and shit.”
“That’s what’s up.”
“But it’s good to be in M-Town. Always is.”
“Home sweet home.”
Another lull descended, and I heard myself announce, out of spite or sheer dumb masochism:
“But what’s really sick about Nashville is that Mary Catherine transferred from App. State. She’s at Belmont now, which is, like, super close to Vandy.”
“Mary Catherine?” he said.
“You know,” I said. “Mary Catherine. My girlfriend. MC.”
“Oh,” he said. “MC.”
“Didn’t know she was your girlfriend.”
He’d spoken with indifference, even innocence, as if recalling an old classmate who’d left no real impression. I was, of course, bewildered. Had he waved to me at all, or to someone at my back? Did he remember the night when he’d kissed her, taken her up in his long, greedy arms?
We stood and puffed our Newports. I could feel the floorboards flex beneath our weight.
“So,” I said, half-wishing to remind him, “how’s the old love life?”
“The old love life.”
“Not bad,” he said, laughing. “But Rhodes girls are crazy, dude. Rich chicks from Dallas and NOLA and shit. Credit cards, daddy issues. It’s a lot. But I do alright, I guess.”
“I’m sure you do.”
His slur, the more he spoke, had gotten thicker, and I noticed that he swayed when he exhaled. It was a slow, subtle drooping of the head, and it made him seem drunk, far drunker than I’d realized.
“Good shit, man,” I said.
“But, dude, I gotta roll here in a second.” He sighed and dropped the cigarette and stomped its little flame. “Got some work I gotta do.”
“Word,” I said.
“Good to see you, bro.”
I watched him take the stairs down to the yard, then pass around the corner, out of sight. In a moment I could hear the kick and hiccup of his Honda, and at last he whirred unseen into the dark—presumably to buy or sell some Xanax or some weed.
The other guys had filtered back inside, and now I had the porch all to myself. I stood there, on the L’s far lip, taking in the lawn, the street, the sunken, shadowed faces of the houses straight ahead. I was happy he was gone, but there was something that had wounded me. I’d hated him, despised him for a year, and here we’d stood conversing like two strangers—oblivious, generic. And this, somehow, was what hurt me the most: He hadn’t once spoken my name.
¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶
Summer again. My final summer there in Memphis. I was working as an intern at my father’s firm, Schneider Campion, loathing the work yet knowing that I—my father’s son, and thus a helpless subject to the bland pull of the law—would soon endure the LSAT and assume my final form. Mary Catherine had landed her own internship at a Midtown arts non-profit, a frumpy little bungalow where she spent her days reading and, it seemed, avoiding any question of the future. I still wanted to marry her. But by then we were only sporadically happy, running in our default mode of pettiness and jealousy and little bursts of lust.
It was a Sunday when we heard. We were in her parents’ living room, and with her parents at their club, and William out, and Jean corralling laundry in the back, it was easy to pretend that the house was really ours. We were sitting there watching The In-Laws, which was funny, I suppose, though I had that Sunday feeling, the nagging grief that still, a decade later, reminds me of that Sunday in particular.
I say we were watching The In-Laws, but the truth is only I was. Mary Catherine was distracted by her phone, her legs on my lap as she sprawled across the couch. I was focused on the movie, trying to enjoy it, when she gasped and sat up sharply.
“Oh, fuck,” she said. From the fear in her voice, I thought that something massive had occurred—a terrorist attack, another 9/11. “Fuck.”
“What?” I said.
“Jesus.” But then her voice went calm, almost robotic. “Shelby Barlow died. He OD’d. He passed away.”
“Fuck,” I said, for lack of something better.
My first response was giddy disbelief—giddy not with joy or any sick strain of revenge but with a terrible discomfort. It was the kind of distant and impersonal horror before which, your mind thrown back in apprehension of the truth, you can only smile or stifle nervous laughter. But of course it wasn’t distant, and instead of smiling (I was not, at least, a monster), I forced myself to look down at the rug, the twining woven patterns and the dyes which now seemed vivid past all reckoning. The ocher and the turquoise, the rouge and burnt sienna. (If I named each stupid color in my head, I might succeed in keeping out the facts.)
But then she started crying, her hands like little shields against her face.
“I just—” she said. “I can’t believe he’s—”
I felt myself redden. Hadn’t we seen death? Hadn’t Memphis kids begun, at least a year before, to die in droves from heroin and pills?
Perhaps I was a monster. All I had to do was speak.
“I knew he partied,” I said, “but not, like, as a junkie.”
“How could you say that?” she said. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“No, nothing, nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing? He’s fucking dead. He passed away.”
And with this she stood and hurried to her room.
I knew better than to follow. Instead I considered her words. They were the first note, I sensed, in a symphony of heroism—a passion play, a martyrdom.
I had to force myself to stop, to look about the room for a distraction. On the opposite wall, Mary Catherine’s parents had framed one of her paintings, a still life with vase and bouquet. I had always admired it—its presence in the living room, its elevation of her talents to a gift. But now, as I studied it, I had to admit that the painting was bad. The flowers were gaudy, their colors all out of proportion, and the canvas, as a whole, bore the touch of mediocrity, a touch that I’d denied but which affronted me now like a finger to the eyes.
I was sitting there, lost, when Jean walked in.
“Andrew,” she said, a hamper in her arms, “what you doin’ by yourself? Y’all in a spat?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Lord, it’s always something. But how she gonna quarrel with a fine young man like you? She’ll come around. She always does.”
I managed a smile, and Jean, swinging her hamper from hip to front, winked and took her leave.
She could lie all she liked, but her eyes told the truth. I was a guest, a passing shadow. I shuffled to the door, then to the curb, all thoughts of Mary Catherine (and of Shelby Barlow’s death) buried by the impulse to be gone.
At the car I stopped and leaned against its door. Above me shone the same faint stars that had blessed us in New Orleans, but to look up and abase myself before their distant glow would be to certify despair, and so I looked down at the car and my own hands. And then I got inside, and then I left.