one hundred thirty-six days before
THE WEEK BEFORE I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically. Although I was more or less forced to invite all my “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years. She cooked a small mountain of artichoke dip. She festooned our living room in green and yellow streamers, the colors of my new school. She bought two dozen champagne poppers and placed them around the edge of our coffee table.
And when that final Friday came, when my packing was mostly done, she sat with my dad and me on the living-room couch at 4:56 P.M. and patiently awaited the arrival of the Good-bye to Miles Cavalry. Said cavalry consisted of exactly two people: Marie Lawson, a tiny blonde with rectangular glasses, and her chunky (to put it charitably) boyfriend, Will.
“Hey, Miles,” Marie said as she sat down.
“Hey,” I said.
“How was your summer?” Will asked.
“Good. We did Jesus Christ Superstar. I helped with the sets. Marie did lights,” said Will.
“That’s cool.” I nodded knowingly, and that about exhausted our conversational topics. I might have asked a question about Jesus Christ Superstar, except that 1. I didn’t know what it was, and 2. I didn’t care to learn, and 3. I never really excelled at small talk. My mom, however, can talk small for hours, and so she extended the awkwardness by asking them about their rehearsal schedule, and how the show had gone, and whether it was a success.
“I guess it was,” Marie said. “A lot of people came, I guess.” Marie was the sort of person to guess a lot.
Finally, Will said, “Well, we just dropped by to say good-bye. I’ve got to get Marie home by six. Have fun at boarding school, Miles.”
“Thanks,” I answered, relieved. The only thing worse than having a party that no one attends is having a party attended only by two vastly, deeply uninteresting people.
They left, and so I sat with my parents and stared at the blank TV and wanted to turn it on but knew I shouldn’t. I could feel them both looking at me, waiting for me to burst into tears or something, as if I hadn’t known all along that it would go precisely like this. But I had known. I could feel their pity as they scooped artichoke dip with chips intended for my imaginary friends, but they needed pity more than I did: I wasn’t disappointed. My expectations had been met.
“Is this why you want to leave, Miles?” Mom asked.
I mulled it over for a moment, careful not to look at her. “Uh, no,” I said.
“Well, why then?” she asked. This was not the first time she had posed the question. Mom was not particularly keen on letting me go to boarding school and had made no secret of it.
“Because of me?” my dad asked. He had attended Culver Creek, the same boarding school to which I was headed, as had both of his brothers and all of their kids. I think he liked the idea of me following in his footsteps. My uncles had told me stories about how famous my dad had been on campus for having simultaneously raised hell and aced all his classes. That sounded like a better life than the one I had in Florida. But no, it wasn’t because of Dad. Not exactly.
“Hold on,” I said. I went into Dad’s study and found his biography of François Rabelais. I liked reading biographies of writers, even if (as was the case with Monsieur Rabelais), I’d never read any of their actual writing. I flipped to the back and found the highlighted quote (“NEVER USE A HIGHLIGHTER IN MY BOOKS,” my dad had told me a thousand times. But how else are you supposed to find what you’re looking for?).
“So this guy,” I said, standing in the doorway of the living room. “François Rabelais. He was this poet. And his last words were ‘I go to seek a Great Perhaps.’ That’s why I’m going. So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”
And that quieted them. I was after a Great Perhaps, and they knew as well as I did that I wasn’t going to find it with the likes of Will and Marie. I sat back down on the couch, between my mom and my dad, and my dad put his arm around me, and we stayed there like that, quiet on the couch together, for a long time, until it seemed okay to turn on the TV, and then we ate artichoke dip for dinner and watched the History Channel, and as going-away parties go, it certainly could have been worse.
one hundred twenty-eight days before
FLORIDA WAS PLENTY HOT, certainly, and humid, too. Hot enough that your clothes stuck to you like Scotch tape, and sweat dripped like tears from your forehead into your eyes. But it was only hot outside, and generally I only went outside to walk from one air-conditioned location to another.
This did not prepare me for the unique sort of heat that one encounters fifteen miles south of Birmingham, Alabama, at Culver Creek Preparatory School. My parents’ SUV was parked in the grass just a few feet outside my dorm room, Room 43. But each time I took those few steps to and from the car to unload what now seemed like far too much stuff, the sun burned through my clothes and into my skin with a vicious ferocity that made me genuinely fear hellfire.
Between Mom and Dad and me, it only took a few minutes to unload the car, but my unair-conditioned dorm room, although blessedly out of the sunshine, was only modestly cooler. The room surprised me: I’d pictured plush carpet, wood-paneled walls, Victorian furniture. Aside from one luxury—a private bathroom—I got a box. With cinder-block walls coated thick with layers of white paint and a green-and-white-checkered linoleum floor, the place looked more like a hospital than the dorm room of my fantasies. A bunk bed of unfinished wood with vinyl mattresses was pushed against the room’s back window. The desks and dressers and bookshelves were all attached to the walls in order to prevent creative floor planning. And no air-conditioning.
I sat on the lower bunk while Mom opened the trunk, grabbed a stack of the biographies my dad had agreed to part with, and placed them on the bookshelves.
“I can unpack, Mom,” I said. My dad stood. He was ready to go.
“Let me at least make your bed,” Mom said.
“No, really. I can do it. It’s okay.” Because you simply cannot draw these things out forever. At some point, you just pull off the Band-Aid and it hurts, but then it’s over and you’re relieved.
“God, we’ll miss you,” Mom said suddenly, stepping through the minefield of suitcases to get to the bed. I stood and hugged her. My dad walked over, too, and we formed a sort of huddle. It was too hot, and we were too sweaty, for the hug to last terribly long. I knew I ought to cry, but I’d lived with my parents for sixteen years, and a trial separation seemed overdue.
“Don’t worry.” I smiled. “I’s a-gonna learn how t’talk right Southern.” Mom laughed.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” my dad said.
“No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes.” As an alumnus of Culver Creek, he had done the things I had only heard about: the secret parties, streaking through hay fields (he always whined about how it was all boys back then), drugs, drinking, and cigarettes. It had taken him a while to kick smoking, but his badass days were now well behind him.
“I love you,” they both blurted out simultaneously. It needed to be said, but the words made the whole thing horribly uncomfortable, like watching your grandparents kiss.
“I love you, too. I’ll call every Sunday.” Our rooms had no phone lines, but my parents had requested I be placed in a room near one of Culver Creek’s five pay phones.
They hugged me again—Mom, then Dad—and it was over. Out the back window, I watched them drive the winding road off campus. I should have felt a gooey, sentimental sadness, perhaps. But mostly I just wanted to cool off, so I grabbed one of the desk chairs and sat down outside my door in the shade of the overhanging eaves, waiting for a breeze that never arrived. The air outside sat as still and oppressive as the air inside. I stared out over my new digs: Six one-story buildings, each with sixteen dorm rooms, were arranged in a hexagram around a large circle of grass. It looked like an oversize old motel. Everywhere, boys and girls hugged and smiled and walked together. I vaguely hoped that someone would come up and talk to me. I imagined the conversation:
“Hey. Is this your first year?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m from Florida.”
“That’s cool. So you’re used to the heat.”
“I wouldn’t be used to this heat if I were from Hades,” I’d joke. I’d make a good first impression. Oh, he’s funny. That guy Miles is a riot.
That didn’t happen, of course. Things never happened like I imagined them.
Bored, I went back inside, took off my shirt, lay down on the heat-soaked vinyl of the lower bunk mattress, and closed my eyes. I’d never been born again with the baptism and weeping and all that, but it couldn’t feel much better than being born again as a guy with no known past. I thought of the people I’d read about—John F. Kennedy, James Joyce, Humphrey Bogart—who went to boarding school, and their adventures—Kennedy, for example, loved pranks. I thought of the Great Perhaps and the things that might happen and the people I might meet and who my roommate might be (I’d gotten a letter a few weeks before that gave me his name, Chip Martin, but no other information). Whoever Chip Martin was, I hoped to God he would bring an arsenal of high-powered fans, because I hadn’t packed even one, and I could already feel my sweat pooling on the vinyl mattress, which disgusted me so much that I stopped thinking and got off my ass to find a towel to wipe up the sweat with. And then I thought, Well, before the adventure comes the unpacking.
I managed to tape a map of the world to the wall and get most of my clothes into drawers before I noticed that the hot, moist air made even the walls sweat, and I decided that now was not the time for manual labor. Now was the time for a magnificently cold shower.
The small bathroom contained a huge, full-length mirror behind the door, and so I could not escape the reflection of my naked self as I leaned in to turn on the shower faucet. My skinniness always surprised me: My thin arms didn’t seem to get much bigger as they moved from wrist to shoulder, my chest lacked any hint of either fat or muscle, and I felt embarrassed and wondered if something could be done about the mirror. I pulled open the plain white shower curtain and ducked into the stall.
Unfortunately, the shower seemed to have been designed for someone approximately three feet, seven inches tall, so the cold water hit my lower rib cage—with all the force of a dripping faucet. To wet my sweat-soaked face, I had to spread my legs and squat significantly. Surely, John F. Kennedy (who was six feet tall according to his biography, my height exactly) did not have to squat at his boarding school. No, this was a different beast entirely, and as the dribbling shower slowly soaked my body, I wondered whether I could find a Great Perhaps here at all or whether I had made a grand miscalculation.
When I opened the bathroom door after my shower, a towel wrapped around my waist, I saw a short, muscular guy with a shock of brown hair. He was hauling a gigantic army-green duffel bag through the door of my room. He stood five feet and nothing, but was well-built, like a scale model of Adonis, and with him arrived the stink of stale cigarette smoke. Great, I thought. I’m meeting my roommate naked. He heaved the duffel into the room, closed the door, and walked over to me.
“I’m Chip Martin,” he announced in a deep voice, the voice of a radio deejay. Before I could respond, he added, “I’d shake your hand, but I think you should hold on damn tight to that towel till you can get some clothes on.”
I laughed and nodded my head at him (that’s cool, right? the nod?) and said, “I’m Miles Halter. Nice to meet you.”
“Miles as in ‘to go before I sleep’?” he asked me.
“It’s a Robert Frost poem. You’ve never read him?”
I shook my head no.
“Consider yourself lucky.” He smiled.
I grabbed some clean underwear, a pair of blue Adidas soccer shorts, and a white T-shirt, mumbled that I’d be back in a second, and ducked back into the bathroom. So much for a good first impression.
“So where are your parents?” I asked from the bathroom.
“My parents? The father’s in California right now. Maybe sitting in his La-Z-Boy. Maybe driving his truck. Either way, he’s drinking. My mother is probably just now turning off campus.”
“Oh,” I said, dressed now, not sure how to respond to such personal information. I shouldn’t have asked, I guess, if I didn’t want to know.
Chip grabbed some sheets and tossed them onto the top bunk. “I’m a top bunk man. Hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“Uh, no. Whatever is fine.”
“I see you’ve decorated the place,” he said, gesturing toward the world map. “I like it.”
And then he started naming countries. He spoke in a monotone, as if he’d done it a thousand times before.
And so on. He got through the A’s before looking up and noticing my incredulous stare.
“I could do the rest, but it’d probably bore you. Something I learned over the summer. God, you can’t imagine how boring New Hope, Alabama, is in the summertime. Like watching soybeans grow. Where are you from, by the way?”
“Florida,” I said.
“That’s pretty amazing, the countries thing,” I said.
“Yeah, everybody’s got a talent. I can memorize things. And you can . . . ?”
“Um, I know a lot of people’s last words.” It was an indulgence, learning last words. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations.
“I like Henrik Ibsen’s. He was a playwright.” I knew a lot about Ibsen, but I’d never read any of his plays. I didn’t like reading plays. I liked reading biographies.
“Yeah, I know who he was,” said Chip.
“Right, well, he’d been sick for a while and his nurse said to him, ‘You seem to be feeling better this morning,’ and Ibsen looked at her and said, ‘On the contrary,’ and then he died.”
Chip laughed. “That’s morbid. But I like it.”
He told me he was in his third year at Culver Creek. He had started in ninth grade, the first year at the school, and was now a junior like me. A scholarship kid, he said. Got a full ride. He’d heard it was the best school in Alabama, so he wrote his application essay about how he wanted to go to a school where he could read long books. The problem, he said in the essay, was that his dad would always hit him with the books in his house, so Chip kept his books short and paperback for his own safety. His parents got divorced his sophomore year. He liked “the Creek,” as he called it, but “You have to be careful here, with students and with teachers. And I do hate being careful.” He smirked. I hated being careful, too—or wanted to, at least.
He told me this while ripping through his duffel bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a T-shirt drawer. He believed that all drawers were created equal and filled each with whatever fit. My mother would have died.
As soon as he finished “unpacking,” Chip hit me roughly on the shoulder, said, “I hope you’re stronger than you look,” and walked out the door, leaving it open behind him. He peeked his head back in a few seconds later and saw me standing still. “Well, come on, Miles To Go Halter. We got shit to do.”
We made our way to the TV room, which according to Chip contained the only cable TV on campus. Over the summer, it served as a storage unit. Packed nearly to the ceiling with couches, fridges, and rolled-up carpets, the TV room undulated with kids trying to find and haul away their stuff. Chip said hello to a few people but didn’t introduce me. As he wandered through the couch-stocked maze, I stood near the room’s entrance, trying my best not to block pairs of roommates as they maneuvered furniture through the narrow front door.
It took ten minutes for Chip to find his stuff, and an hour more for us to make four trips back and forth across the dorm circle between the TV room and Room 43. By the end, I wanted to crawl into Chip’s minifridge and sleep for a thousand years, but Chip seemed immune to both fatigue and heatstroke. I sat down on his couch.
“I found it lying on a curb in my neighborhood a couple years ago,” he said of the couch as he worked on setting up my PlayStation 2 on top of his footlocker. “I know the leather’s got some cracks, but come on. That’s a damn nice couch.” The leather had more than a few cracks—it was about 30 percent baby blue faux leather and 70 percent foam—but it felt damn good to me anyway.
“All right,” he said. “We’re about done.” He walked over to his desk and pulled a roll of duct tape from a drawer. “We just need your trunk.”
I got up, pulled the trunk out from under the bed, and Chip situated it between the couch and the PlayStation 2 and started tearing off thin strips of duct tape. He applied them to the trunk so that they spelled out COFFEE TABLE.
“There,” he said. He sat down and put his feet up on the, uh, coffee table. “Done.”
I sat down next to him, and he looked over at me and suddenly said, “Listen. I’m not going to be your entrée to Culver Creek social life.”
“Uh, okay,” I said, but I could hear the words catch in my throat. I’d just carried this guy’s couch beneath a white-hot sun and now he didn’t like me?
“Basically you’ve got two groups here,” he explained, speaking with increasing urgency. “You’ve got the regular boarders, like me, and then you’ve got the Weekday Warriors; they board here, but they’re all rich kids who live in Birmingham and go home to their parents’ air-conditioned mansions every weekend. Those are the cool kids. I don’t like them, and they don’t like me, and so if you came here thinking that you were hot shit at public school so you’ll be hot shit here, you’d best not be seen with me. You did go to public school, didn’t you?”
“Uh . . .” I said. Absentmindedly, I began picking at the cracks in the couch’s leather, digging my fingers into the foamy whiteness.
“Right, you did, probably, because if you had gone to a private school your freakin’ shorts would fit.” He laughed.
I wore my shorts just below my hips, which I thought was cool. Finally I said, “Yeah, I went to public school. But I wasn’t hot shit there, Chip. I was regular shit.”
“Ha! That’s good. And don’t call me Chip. Call me the Colonel.”
I stifled a laugh. “The Colonel?”
“Yeah. The Colonel. And we’ll call you . . . hmm. Pudge.”
“Pudge,” the Colonel said. “Because you’re skinny. It’s called irony, Pudge. Heard of it? Now, let’s go get some cigarettes and start this year off right.”
He walked out of the room, again just assuming I’d follow, and this time I did. Mercifully, the sun was descending toward the horizon. We walked five doors down to Room 48. A dry-erase board was taped to the door using duct tape. In blue marker, it read: Alaska has a single!
The Colonel explained to me that 1. this was Alaska’s room, and that 2. she had a single room because the girl who was supposed to be her roommate got kicked out at the end of last year, and that 3. Alaska had cigarettes, although the Colonel neglected to ask whether 4. I smoked, which 5. I didn’t.
He knocked once, loudly. Through the door, a voice screamed, “Oh my God come in you short little man because I have the best story.”
We walked in. I turned to close the door behind me, and the Colonel shook his head and said, “After seven, you have to leave the door open if you’re in a girl’s room,” but I barely heard him because the hottest girl in all of human history was standing before me in cutoff jeans and a peach tank top. And she was talking over the Colonel, talking loud and fast.
“So first day of summer, I’m in grand old Vine Station with this boy named Justin and we’re at his house watching TV on the couch—and mind you, I’m already dating Jake—actually I’m still dating him, miraculously enough, but Justin is a friend of mine from when I was a kid and so we’re watching TV and literally chatting about the SATs or something, and Justin puts his arm around me and I think, Oh that’s nice, we’ve been friends for so long and this is totally comfortable, and we’re just chatting and then I’m in the middle of a sentence about analogies or something and like a hawk he reaches down and he honks my boob. HONK. A much-too-firm, two- to three-second HONK. And the first thing I thought was Okay, how do I extricate this claw from my boob before it leaves permanent marks? and the second thing I thought was God, I can’t wait to tell Takumi and the Colonel.”
The Colonel laughed. I stared, stunned partly by the force of the voice emanating from the petite (but God, curvy) girl and partly by the gigantic stacks of books that lined her walls. Her library filled her bookshelves and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature.
“Who’s the guy that’s not laughing at my very funny story?” she asked.
“Oh, right. Alaska, this is Pudge. Pudge memorizes people’s last words. Pudge, this is Alaska. She got her boob honked over the summer.” She walked over to me with her hand extended, then made a quick move downward at the last moment and pulled down my shorts.
“Those are the biggest shorts in the state of Alabama!”
“I like them baggy,” I said, embarrassed, and pulled them up. They had been cool back home in Florida.
“So far in our relationship, Pudge, I’ve seen your chicken legs entirely too often,” the Colonel deadpanned. “So, Alaska. Sell us some cigarettes.” And then somehow, the Colonel talked me into paying five dollars for a pack of Marlboro Lights I had no intention of ever smoking. He asked Alaska to join us, but she said, “I have to find Takumi and tell him about The Honk.” She turned to me and asked, “Have you seen him?” I had no idea whether I’d seen Takumi, since I had no idea who he was. I just shook my head.
“All right. Meet ya at the lake in a few minutes, then.” The Colonel nodded.
At the edge of the lake, just before the sandy (and, the Colonel told me, fake) beach, we sat down in an Adirondack swing. I made the obligatory joke: “Don’t grab my boob.” The Colonel gave an obligatory laugh, then asked, “Want a smoke?” I had never smoked a cigarette, but when in Rome . . .
“Is it safe here?”
“Not really,” he said, then lit a cigarette and handed it to me. I inhaled. Coughed. Wheezed. Gasped for breath. Coughed again. Considered vomiting. Grabbed the swinging bench, head spinning, and threw the cigarette to the ground and stomped on it, convinced my Great Perhaps did not involve cigarettes.
“Smoke much?” He laughed, then pointed to a white speck across the lake and said, “See that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What is that? A bird?”
“It’s the swan,” he said.
“Wow. A school with a swan. Wow.”
“That swan is the spawn of Satan. Never get closer to it than we are now.”
“It has some issues with people. It was abused or something. It’ll rip you to pieces. The Eagle put it there to keep us from walking around the lake to smoke.”
“Mr. Starnes. Code name: the Eagle. The dean of students. Most of the teachers live on campus, and they’ll all bust you. But only the Eagle lives in the dorm circle, and he sees all. He can smell a cigarette from like five miles.”
“Isn’t his house back there?” I asked, pointing to it. I could see the house quite clearly despite the darkness, so it followed he could probably see us.
“Yeah, but he doesn’t really go into blitzkrieg mode until classes start,” Chip said nonchalantly.
“God, if I get in trouble my parents will kill me,” I said.
“I suspect you’re exaggerating. But look, you’re going to get in trouble. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your parents never have to know, though. The school doesn’t want your parents to think you became a fuckup here any more than you want your parents to think you’re a fuckup.” He blew a thin stream of smoke forcefully toward the lake. I had to admit: He looked cool doing it. Taller, somehow. “Anyway, when you get in trouble, just don’t tell on anyone. I mean, I hate the rich snots here with a fervent passion I usually reserve only for dental work and my father. But that doesn’t mean I would rat them out. Pretty much the only important thing is never never never never rat.”
“Okay,” I said, although I wondered: If someone punches me in the face, I’m supposed to insist that I ran into a door? It seemed a little stupid. How do you deal with bullies and assholes if you can’t get them into trouble? I didn’t ask Chip, though.
“All right, Pudge. We have reached the point in the evening when I’m obliged to go and find my girlfriend. So give me a few of those cigarettes you’ll never smoke anyway, and I’ll see you later.”
I decided to hang out on the swing for a while, half because the heat had finally dissipated into a pleasant, if muggy, eighty-something, and half because I thought Alaska might show up. But almost as soon as the Colonel left, the bugs encroached: no-see-ums (which, for the record, you can see) and mosquitoes hovered around me in such numbers that the tiny noise of their rubbing wings sounded cacophonous. And then I decided to smoke.
Now, I did think, The smoke will drive the bugs away. And, to some degree, it did. I’d be lying, though, if I claimed I became a smoker to ward off insects. I became a smoker because 1. I was on an Adirondack swing by myself, and 2. I had cigarettes, and 3. I figured that if everyone else could smoke a cigarette without coughing, I could damn well, too. In short, I didn’t have a very good reason. So yeah, let’s just say that 4. it was the bugs.
I made it through three entire drags before I felt nauseous and dizzy and only semipleasantly buzzed. I got up to leave. As I stood, a voice behind me said:
“So do you really memorize last words?”
She ran up beside me and grabbed my shoulder and pushed me back onto the porch swing.
“Yeah,” I said. And then hesitantly, I added, “You want to quiz me?”
“JFK,” she said.
“That’s obvious,” I answered.
“Oh, is it now?” she asked.
“No. Those were his last words. Someone said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,’ and then he said, ‘That’s obvious,’ and then he got shot.”
She laughed. “God, that’s awful. I shouldn’t laugh. But I will,” and then she laughed again. “Okay, Mr. Famous Last Words Boy. I have one for you.” She reached into her overstuffed backpack and pulled out a book. “Gabriel García Márquez. The General in His Labyrinth. Absolutely one of my favorites. It’s about Simón Bolívar.” I didn’t know who Simón Bolívar was, but she didn’t give me time to ask. “It’s a historical novel, so I don’t know if this is true, but in the book, do you know what his last words are? No, you don’t. But I am about to tell you, Señor Parting Remarks.”
And then she lit a cigarette and sucked on it so hard for so long that I thought the entire thing might burn off in one drag. She exhaled and read to me:
“‘He’—that’s Simón Bolívar—‘was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”’”
I knew great last words when I heard them, and I made a mental note to get ahold of a biography of this Simón Bolívar fellow. Beautiful last words, but I didn’t quite understand. “So what’s the labyrinth?” I asked her.
And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light. But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tight tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip-flops dangling from her electric-blue-painted toes. It was right then, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d noticed curves before, of course, but I had never quite apprehended their significance.
Her mouth close enough to me that I could feel her breath warmer than the air, she said, “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” I waited for her to keep talking, but after a while it became obvious she wanted an answer.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said finally. “Have you really read all those books in your room?”
She laughed. “Oh God no. I’ve maybe read a third of ’em. But I’m going to read them all. I call it my Life’s Library. Every summer since I was little, I’ve gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting. So I always have something to read. But there is so much to do: cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, swings to swing on. I’ll have more time for reading when I’m old and boring.”
She told me that I reminded her of the Colonel when he came to Culver Creek. They were freshmen together, she said, both scholarship kids with, as she put it, “a shared interest in booze and mischief.” The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as “the wrong crowd,” but for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart. As she lit a new cigarette off the butt of her previous one, she told me that the Colonel was smart but hadn’t done much living when he got to the Creek.
“I got rid of that problem quickly.” She smiled. “By November, I’d gotten him his first girlfriend, a perfectly nice non–Weekday Warrior named Janice. He dumped her after a month because she was too rich for his poverty-soaked blood, but whatever. We pulled our first prank that year—we filled Classroom Four with a thin layer of marbles. We’ve progressed some since then, of course.” She laughed. So Chip became the Colonel—the military-style planner of their pranks, and Alaska was ever Alaska, the larger-than-life creative force behind them.
“You’re smart like him,” she said. “Quieter, though. And cuter, but I didn’t even just say that, because I love my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, you’re not bad either,” I said, overwhelmed by her compliment. “But I didn’t just say that, because I love my girlfriend. Oh, wait. Right. I don’t have one.”
She laughed. “Yeah, don’t worry, Pudge. If there’s one thing I can get you, it’s a girlfriend. Let’s make a deal: You figure out what the labyrinth is and how to get out of it, and I’ll get you laid.”
“Deal.” We shook on it.
Later, I walked toward the dorm circle beside Alaska. The cicadas hummed their one-note song, just as they had at home in Florida. She turned to me as we made our way through the darkness and said, “When you’re walking at night, do you ever get creeped out and even though it’s silly and embarrassing you just want to run home?”
It seemed too secret and personal to admit to a virtual stranger, but I told her, “Yeah, totally.”
For a moment, she was quiet. Then she grabbed my hand, whispered, “Run run run run run,” and took off, pulling me behind her.
one hundred twenty-seven days before
EARLY THE NEXT AFTERNOON, I blinked sweat from my eyes as I taped a van Gogh poster to the back of the door. The Colonel sat on the couch judging whether the poster was level and fielding my endless questions about Alaska. What’s her story? “She’s from Vine Station. You could drive past it without noticing—and from what I understand, you ought to. Her boyfriend’s at Vanderbilt on scholarship. Plays bass in some band. Don’t know much about her family.” So she really likes him? “I guess. She hasn’t cheated on him, which is a first.” And so on. All morning, I’d been unable to care about anything else, not the van Gogh poster and not video games and not even my class schedule, which the Eagle had brought by that morning. He introduced himself, too:
“Welcome to Culver Creek, Mr. Halter. You’re given a large measure of freedom here. If you abuse it, you’ll regret it. You seem like a nice young man. I’d hate to have to bid you farewell.”
And then he stared at me in a manner that was either serious or seriously malicious. “Alaska calls that the Look of Doom,” the Colonel told me after the Eagle left. “The next time you see that, you’re busted.”
“Okay, Pudge,” the Colonel said as I stepped away from the poster. Not entirely level, but close enough. “Enough with the Alaska already. By my count, there are ninety-two girls at this school, and every last one of them is less crazy than Alaska, who, I might add, already has a boyfriend. I’m going to lunch. It’s bufriedo day.” He walked out, leaving the door open. Feeling like an overinfatuated idiot, I got up to close the door. The Colonel, already halfway across the dorm circle, turned around. “Christ. Are you coming or what?”
You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep fryers. In that first week at the Creek, the cafeteria served fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, and fried okra, which marked my first foray into the delicacy that is the fried vegetable. I half expected them to fry the iceberg lettuce. But nothing matched the bufriedo, a dish created by Maureen, the amazingly (and understandably) obese Culver Creek cook. A deep-fried bean burrito, the bufriedo proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that frying always improves a food. Sitting with the Colonel and five guys I didn’t know at a circular table in the cafeteria that afternoon, I sank my teeth into the crunchy shell of my first bufriedo and experienced a culinary orgasm. My mom cooked okay, but I immediately wanted to bring Maureen home with me over Thanksgiving.
The Colonel introduced me (as “Pudge”) to the guys at the wobbly wooden table, but I only registered the name Takumi, whom Alaska had mentioned yesterday. A thin Japanese guy only a few inches taller than the Colonel, Takumi talked with his mouth full as I chewed slowly, savoring the bean-y crunch.
“God,” Takumi said to me, “there’s nothing like watching a man eat his first bufriedo.”
I didn’t say much—partly because no one asked me any questions and partly because I just wanted to eat as much as I could. But Takumi felt no such modesty—he could, and did, eat and chew and swallow while talking.
The lunch discussion centered on the girl who was supposed to have been Alaska’s roommate, Marya, and her boyfriend, Paul, who had been a Weekday Warrior. They’d gotten kicked out in the last week of the previous school year, I learned, for what the Colonel called “the Trifecta”—they were caught committing three of Culver Creek’s expellable offenses at once. Lying naked in bed together (“genital contact” being offense #1), already drunk (#2), they were smoking a joint (#3) when the Eagle burst in on them. Rumors had it that someone had ratted them out, and Takumi seemed intent on finding out who—intent enough, anyway, to shout about it with his mouth jam-packed with bufriedo.
“Paul was an asshole,” the Colonel said. “I wouldn’t have ratted on them, but anyone who shacks up with a Jaguar-driving Weekday Warrior like Paul deserves what she gets.”
“Dude,” Takumi responded, “yaw guhfwend,” and then he swallowed a bite of food, “is a Weekday Warrior.”
“True.” The Colonel laughed. “Much to my chagrin, that is an incontestable fact. But she is not as big an asshole as Paul.”
“Not quite.” Takumi smirked. The Colonel laughed again, and I wondered why he wouldn’t stand up for his girlfriend. I wouldn’t have cared if my girlfriend was a Jaguar-driving Cyclops with a beard—I’d have been grateful just to have someone to make out with.
That evening, when the Colonel dropped by Room 43 to pick up the cigarettes (he seemed to have forgotten that they were, technically, mine), I didn’t really care when he didn’t invite me out with him. In public school, I’d known plenty of people who made it a habit to hate this kind of person or that kind—the geeks hated the preps, etc.—and it always seemed like a big waste of time to me. The Colonel didn’t tell me where he’d spent the afternoon, or where he was going to spend the evening, but he closed the door behind him when he left, so I guessed I wasn’t welcome.
Just as well: I spent the night surfing the Web (no porn, I swear) and reading The Final Days, a book about Richard Nixon and Watergate. For dinner, I microwaved a refrigerated bufriedo the Colonel had snuck out of the cafeteria. It reminded me of nights in Florida—except with better food and no air-conditioning. Lying in bed and reading felt pleasantly familiar.
I decided to heed what I’m sure would have been my mother’s advice and get a good night’s sleep before my first day of classes. French II started at 8:10, and figuring it couldn’t take more than eight minutes to put on some clothes and walk to the classrooms, I set my alarm for 8:02. I took a shower, and then lay in bed waiting for sleep to save me from the heat. Around 11:00, I realized that the tiny fan clipped to my bunk might make more of a difference if I took off my shirt, and I finally fell asleep on top of the sheets wearing just boxers.
A decision I found myself regretting some hours later when I awoke to two sweaty, meaty hands shaking the holy hell out of me. I woke up completely and instantly, sitting up straight in bed, terrified, and I couldn’t understand the voices for some reason, couldn’t understand why there were any voices at all, and what the hell time was it anyway? And finally my head cleared enough to hear, “C’mon, kid. Don’t make us kick your ass. Just get up,” and then from the top bunk, I heard, “Christ, Pudge. Just get up.” So I got up, and saw for the first time three shadowy figures. Two of them grabbed me, one with a hand on each of my upper arms, and walked me out of the room. On the way out, the Colonel mumbled, “Have a good time. Go easy on him, Kevin.”
They led me, almost at a jog, behind my dorm building, and then across the soccer field. The ground was grassy but gravelly, too, and I wondered why no one had shown the common courtesy to tell me to put on shoes, and why was I out there in my underwear, chicken legs exposed to the world? A thousand humiliations crossed my mind: There’s the new junior, Miles Halter, handcuffed to the soccer goal wearing only his boxers. I imagined them taking me into the woods, where we now seemed headed, and beating the shit out of me so that I looked great for my first day of school. And the whole time, I just stared at my feet, because I didn’t want to look at them and I didn’t want to fall, so I watched my steps, trying to avoid the bigger rocks. I felt the fight-or-flight reflex swell up in me over and over again, but I knew that neither fight nor flight had ever worked for me before. They took me a roundabout way to the fake beach, and then I knew what would happen—a good, old-fashioned dunking in the lake—and I calmed down. I could handle that.
When we reached the beach, they told me to put my arms at my sides, and the beefiest guy grabbed two rolls of duct tape from the sand. With my arms flat against my sides like a soldier at attention, they mummified me from my shoulders to my wrists. Then they threw me down on the ground; the sand from the fake beach cushioned the landing, but I still hit my head. Two of them pulled my legs together while the other one—Kevin, I’d figured out—put his angular, strong-jawed face up so close to mine that the gel-soaked spikes of hair pointing out from his forehead poked at my face, and told me, “This is for the Colonel. You shouldn’t hang out with that asshole.” They taped my legs together, from ankles to thighs. I looked like a silver mummy. I said, “Please, guys, don’t,” just before they taped my mouth shut. Then they picked me up and hurled me into the water.
Sinking. Sinking, but instead of feeling panic or anything else, I realized that “Please guys, don’t” were terrible last words. But then the great miracle of the human species—our buoyancy—came through, and as I felt myself floating toward the surface, I twisted and turned as best I could so that the warm night air hit my nose first, and I breathed. I wasn’t dead and wasn’t going to die.
Well, I thought, that wasn’t so bad.