Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Over The Wall

A fiction essay written in December 2009

The wind sweeps my hair across my face as I walk down the dark cobblestone streets, fixated on each step, absorbing the distinct feel of York at night. The city center echoes with pop music, shouting, and singing; it’s like a playground for those who spend all week in suits. The bars and pubs swell with bass thumping and light pours out onto us as we walk quietly by. To our left, a window displays its wares: a group of men in striped button-up shirts grabbing each other around the shoulders and the waists, swaying, drinking and belting out Oasis anthems. They’re out on the pull, they are boys’ boys, their conversations are punctuated with raucous laughter every other moment as they joke and argue about football and sex. Further down, near the looming shape of the Minster, we pass a group of drunk women, decked out in glitz, who lean on each other as they navigate spiked stilettos between the uneven cobblestones to the next stop on the bar crawl. Their legs shoot up to the fringed edge of tiny skirts, leather and denim, their heels towering, their makeup artfully glowing in the dark spaces between watering holes. Our sneakers bridge the gap between two stones, stepping quickly back into the darkness.

They rush in to order before last call. They rush to work and to spend, a whirl of purpose: sets of small, attainable goals. They enjoy themselves, enjoy the things they have, are satisfied within the moment. The scene of their lives is the office or the bar or the store or the sex, untouched by the things that do not brush up against their arms, they navigate a straight unbroken path, a wall of trees at their sides, blocking the view. We catch fleeting snap shots of their night through the foggy windows as we walk by. Like moments captured in a strobe light.

The light and sound pours out into the dark and damp street, and it feels counterintuitive to ignore these beacons of amusement and pleasure to pass them towards more dark. We could go that way; we could enter and trace the path that promises ease and the company of many travelers whose feet have marked this way through the forest.

My friends, who walk beside, behind, and in front of me steer me on past the parties. Noah and I fall into step, our stride stretched as wide as possible without tipping over, balancing from stone to stone.

The first time I met Noah’s family was a few months into my time at York, heading home to Vermont by way of London. Noah invited me to stay for the few days I had after term ended and before my flight left. His mom, like mine, is a little, red-headed, Irish nurse. Siobhan Riley was visibly disappointed to learn that my mom wasn’t “real Irish”; she can only boast Irish parents, American style. Noah, his two solid muscular brothers, and I crowded around the little table in Siobhan’s kitchen. She was heating up mince pies in the oven while asking me about my parents, my professors, Noah’s behavior in the classes we shared.

“Do you want some mince pies? No, Deirdre? How about you Noah?”

“No, thanks mum, I’m full.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have two, they are very good.”

She plops two little mince pies onto a plate and puts it down next to Noah. As she turns back to her cooking, two husky hands dart out and maneuver the pies away.

“Mum, Noah wants more mince pies.”

She scolds him for not telling her to heat up more, and warms another set of pies, again these are stolen by his elder brothers, again they demand more through Noah, the baby, who can have as many pies as they want.

Our friendship began as a dual narcissistic fascination because we are so similar. A fellow English nerd and ex-victim of Catholic school, with a mostly silent doctor father figure. In the wake of their quiet influence and hordes of Catholic guilt, we’ve used the same buzz of chatter, and always had a lot to talk about. After the first blush of enjoying each other’s jokes, music and trudging across campus to classes together, we became confidants. My old heartbreak. His new girlfriend. How useless our degrees will probably be. How we’d like to be creative and successful and famous all at once and don’t think we will.

We are a clump of glitterless friends, booze and drug laden and excitable, plotting our adventure. We are passing by these warm and bright spots in the night, and even their transient presence enhances the sense that we walk through a dark, damp cavern, with stone on all sides and the raucous cheers echoing far along the winding streets within the city gates. Tall walls, battlements and a barbican ring York’s center. The city’s streets and buildings are tightly drawn around itself with corridors of stone that lead to the towering Minster or the impending city walls. York is one of the most conquered cities in one of the most conquered countries in the world, once a political hotspot that drew the attention of the armies of Danes, Romans, Vikings, Normans and Saxons. The city today is a patchwork of each people who once occupied its walls. The stones laid by each of these warring civilizations surround us completely and send tendrils of echoes of each of our steps; amplifying our excitement, our hushed anticipation.

Up ahead, we see Pizza Express, a chain encased in another edifice that is centuries old, that sits right across from the Yorkshire Museum Gardens. During the day the Museum Gardens is another tourist draw for my college town, helping to ensure that the streets are always flooded with many British, European, and Asian tourists. During the day the gardens are packed with foot traffic, children are everywhere, in prams and racing across the grass. Visitors wander around St Mary’s Abbey, idle near the River Ouse and partake of the vendors selling lemonade and bratwursts. That’s during the day. Tonight the gardens are silent, dark, glistening with dew and potential. We are caged without by a tall dark iron fence and the street outside of Pizza Express is well lit, littered with streetlamps. A quick examination of the fences shows that they could be climbed, despite their twelve-foot height. A foot here, a hand here, lifting to give way for the other foot, a hand clasping the top of the fence spike, and the same way down the other side. We gather by the fence, casting sideways glances around us and begin to climb in a few different spots along the street, an organized procession like ants ascending a wall. Purses are thrown through the bars, breaths are held in, and the lapsed Catholic boys instinctively cross themselves as they balance with one leg horizontal to the ground, their crotch poised directly above the menacing spikes atop the fence. I stand on the street side, watching my friends- artists, potheads, hippies, musicians and actors- scale the fence in quick disciplined movements, a posture I’m not likely to see again. I can’t quite enjoy Ollie’s uncharacteristically serious expression as he considers his next step down because I am dangerously one of the last on the street and visible. Hesitation is definitely not the safest course of action, and in that moment my glimpse of this spectacle is gone.

I can see Ben and Dave retreating from the light that drains through the bars; I know Ella is with them from a low hoot from the inky space beyond the fence. I walk up to the bars, notching my foot in the first horizontal joint about three feet from the ground, grabbing the upper joint. I hoist myself up, stretching my other foot up to my hand’s level. I transfer my weight and center myself, standing for one crystallized moment above the fence, fifteen feet from the ground. I’d love to look around from up here, into the dark and inviting gardens, or maybe back on the town. I don’t. Swinging my legs over quickly I am on the other side of the fence, stepping down lightly, and, like my friends before me, retreating quickly from the last lingering risk of the streetlights.

Done! Check, check, check. My eyes resist the varying shades of darkness around me and I blink and stumble towards the sounds of my friends. Delicious illicit adrenaline races the rounds of my veins now as I consider my unlawful entry. I turn back to appraise my handiwork. Very nice. Tall, scary iron fences, are no match for me. The grounds are beautiful, cloaked in stillness that we promptly stomp though as we explore. We wander around for a while, rediscovering the art that bespeckles the grounds. A group sits down in a loose circle, passing a bowl, and I grab Sam for a swig of his flask. Blood still pumping with my gleeful naughtiness, I pull a clipboard out in my mind and add a line to the slowly growing list of things I’m going to try at least once. A trace of self-satisfaction infuses my smile. Done!

“What are you grinning about, monkey?”

I shrug at Noah, still grinning, and hand the flask back and skip off. He knows me too well; if I give him a chance to guess he’ll read me like a book and then mock me relentlessly. Our banter is dry and harsh, where almost everything said is okay because it’s a joke.

When Noah and I got into our first fight we ended up crying in a haze of tobacco smoke, throwing around words like soul mates.

I’d been feeling the buzz of the night, my castmates, the cocktails running through me, and talking to Jake Canton Powell about sex. We were out with our favorites in the cast of The Tempest, Noah’s production. I played Ceres, one of Prospero’s spirits whose only long-winded speeches took place in the marriage scene that Noah ended up cutting. The scene didn’t add much of anything to the three hour-long performance. Still, it cut me back from Ceres to spirit #3. Jake was playing a small part that involved swinging a sword around. He was a freshman but only a year younger than me/ He had a bit of an infatuation with me, and my head was buzzy with pleasantness besides.

I was sitting next to Jake, speaking in a slight undertone about my interpretation of sex noises, a subject I wouldn’t broach sober. I launched into my thoughts on the matter, and felt the press of an outsider on my eyelids. My face was turned down to the table; I was diplomatically laying out intimate details with the considered detachment of a scientist when I glanced up to my other avid audience member, Noah. I was apparently not drunk enough to be proclaiming my theories on screams versus moans to the entire bar because shame colored my cheeks as I met Noah’s gaze.

“Wait, so you’re saying that when a girl’s tone is all squeaky--"

I silenced Jake with an embarrassed smile and jerk of the head and waited for Noah to lose interest. Well it’s not like I wanted to have this conversation with him! We talked about, well, everything, surface impressions of York Uni, the anxious moments of social awkwardness, his insecurities, mine. Our conversations trekked all over my sometimes showy nature and the related decision to get my undergraduate degree in England, his tendency to dive stomach first into love, and to go crazy with jealous from time to time. We’ve probably been over this exact subject over a drink or two while we hid from our respective significant others and laugh at the absurdity of sex, of love.

But his eyes were making me lose my footing on the gravelly precipice of my self-confidence because I probably wouldn’t be talking about this, this way, to Polly, a girlfriend who borders my other side. Jake’s a guy, a cute young boy who I’m not at all interested in and I can hear a little voice in my head saying that I’m making an ass of myself. And another, whispering that I’m making a bit of an ass of Jake by toying him along, dangling talk of intimacy in front of him, like a joke, just because it’s gratifying. And both voices in my head are Noah’s.

And he won’t look away and Jake keeps trying to pick the shite-stained conversation up from the table I kicked it under. I want to whisper to Noah, “Don’t listen, stop listening this isn’t for you.”

“Go away we’re just having a fun, slightly charged, conversation.”

“It’s boring, I’m being an idiot.”

“It’s stupid I’m being a bitch.”

Instead I draw myself up, look sarcastically, searching his face. I make an impatient sound in my throat:

“What?…. What?!... Fuck off and die, yeah?”

He doesn’t understand what I didn’t say, only the rude, hurtful thing I did say. He gets very angry, shouting and saying nasty things in a sour voice I don’t recognize. All the while blowing smoke into my face. I am shocked by the vehemence of his anger; by the things he’s saying and only briefly try to explain that I didn’t mean it before I get angry too. He gets angrier. We storm out separately. Luckily we can’t ignore it, really let it fester for a few days, because we live together, and dealing with this is contingent to going home.

We end up having to talking it out: why I was feeling exposed, and judged, and lashed out, but expecting him to laugh. How he was sitting there feeling disconnected and unsure of himself and then turned to me, wanting to chat, wanting some support, wanting to voice his binding insecurities so that I could laugh them off, turn them inside out and discard them in the corner. Why it felt like I’d slapped him in the face right when he already felt so raw, how he can’t believe that I was the one humiliating him in front of his cast. I said I didn’t plan on it being nasty whereas his response was a conscious effort to hurt me back. He said that I hurt him first, unprompted. But not on purpose, by accident! But still hurtful! And we talked in circles, we gave in, made allowances, and let go of each other’s offenses as we released each drag of smoke into the air. He said he thinks of me as his closest friend, he expects me to always understand the core of him through and through, and that’s why he flipped out when I said that. I said, he’s right. I do see him.

And now I skip away from his line of sight towards the dim silhouettes at the periphery of my vision. I jog over to the dark huddle I can make out far across the lawn. Vices aside, my friends are all business. They divide into teams, go over the rules once, twice, a third time, and set the boundaries. Ella inches forward from the protection of her ranks, and in a harsh, carrying whisper, “GO!” and my friends begin to stealing forward into enemy territory in our midnight game of Capture the Flag.

I want to give myself up to the exhilaration, the thrill and rush of competition but it doesn’t take long for this expectation to flounder, the promise to fall away, for me to realize that none of these Brits are playing right. A quick survey tells me that the game has fallen into disarray. I pull in the park with a deep breath and wander down the slow sloping hill following the path down towards a crowd of trees. And here’s Noah sitting underneath the weeping beech, a large sprawling tree house of a tree, complete with separate spaces and curtains.

“Hey. What’s up, Noah?”

“Hey. Come here.”

I walk towards the trunk of the tree, where Noah is sitting alone and quiet while the chaos of the splintering game clatters around us.

“What are you doing under here, creeper? Meditating?”

“Please. C’mon, sit down, hang out for a minute.”

I lower myself down and my head tilts up instinctively to greet the full moon peering through a slit in the branches around us. The Gardens are worth it. The risk itself might have seemed worth it, but the reward of this locked up wonderland has eclipsed the achievement. Though fenced in, the gardens surrounding the museum are open for acres. The moon is out, I couldn’t see it in the tightly wound streets of the city, nor the wisps of clouds racing in and out of view across its face. Moisture clings to the whole grassy slope; the dew angel I made after the climb has adorned me with the glitter I lacked before. It’s nice to be still. The ground is dry here and the abbey ruins are illuminated to our right, grass lined shapes that just suggest the colossal monastery that later became a King’s palace, that later became the arena for our haphazard war game.

From under the tree we are at once protected from view and watching, able to witness our friends stalking each other, succumbing, and rushing off again into the safety beyond the hill. Unseen, I can watch Dave creep down the slope and hide behind a shadowy tree trunk waiting as Ella wanders closer and closer to his perch. I grin as Ella yelps with terrified delight, shoving Dave away and sprints after his giggling form. Noah passes the flask to me and turns, placing his gaze on me, low laughter rumbling in his voice.

“Did you see those girls near Dusk?

“Nah, drunk?” I pass the flask back.

“Umm, yea. We walked by this one girl whose standing in an alley totally spread out. She is literally stretching herself as wide and large as possible, with a face on her that is completely casual. Which, obviously, looks really weird, so I’m staring at her and I see her friend crouching down behind her. And this girl, instead of concentrating on what she’s doing, or looking down or facing the wall or something, this girl is looking straight at me, totally nonplussed. She’s just as casual as her friend, peering up at me with these big eyes like she’s not doing anything. Totally innocent, like I can’t see pee streaming down under her skirt. Nothing to see here. I’m just crouching in an alley. Really.”

We’re both laughing now, making the peeing face at each other.

Beyond the laughs and the tears, Noah is a point of comfort in this foreign country. I have no real roots here; all my ties are new and flimsy. He has been someone I could lean on, if and when I need it. Noah feels like a favorite sibling, our loyalty is deeper than common likes, common interests. When we fight we end up crying all over each other because we’re upset that we are upset with each other.

My mom was nervous about me being 3,000 miles away, and liking it. Prodding her for reasons, she once exclaimed, “You’re going to fall in love and get married and never come back!!” Luckily for her, my long-term relationship here fizzled out after a little more than a year, and the break up had left me with no pain, some guilt, and a dizzying sense of relief. 6 months later, my eyes still skim over reasonable-type men, and I wouldn’t consider a real relationship if I tripped over my future husband in the street. Mom wins, I’ll be heading back at the end of this year. And Noah will be my best friend in college, my best friend in England, my was best friend.

“What are you looking at, Yee?”

“Nothing! Gimme that flask.”

I try to press my fingers into the matter around me, to be still again. I look back over at the abbey. I take a quick swig, and lean back and eye the moon again. Noah is looking at me out of the corner of his eyes.

“I guess I’m just thinking about this night, and it being a story later, being a retelling only. And we’re here now and I want to draw it all in, really appreciate it, make a movie in my head that has every taste and breeze and feeling all wrapped up in it, that I can take out and have again. And I don’t want to go back to America and resign all of this to the past, I want to stay at this point, or at least have a clear picture of it. But then I look at that tiny fragment of a wall and I know that this right here is not a moment in its history, it doesn’t even exist in moments, it exists in centuries. And in a few of its moments I will be old and fat and won’t remember the name of this place, or who I came here with, or any of it. And it’ll be the same, maybe an inch or two eroded.”

“Or maybe Ollie will kick it down tonight and destroy it forever. Poof!”

I half smile, but my point is still not made. Not even to me. What am I clinging to?

“Cheer up, Puppet! When you’re old and fat and don’t remember being here, you won’t remember that you are forgetting something.”

“But what if I do? What If I forget and remember that I’ve forgotten it?”

“At least it’ll be a story. And you were here. So you are in its history, really. But I mean, come on, it’s just a bit of rock. It’s not sentient. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t have or want, or anything. And at this point it doesn’t really do anything either, does it? It’s in your story now, that’s all.”

We sit some more passing the flask and talking for a long time while the wind blows and the moon shines down. This moment can’t really end because it already has and hasn’t. If I made a movie I would end it at some point, moment closed, memory complete. Maybe no one will ever be stuck as what they were. Maybe 3,000 miles isn’t that far. Maybe I won’t remember what I’ve lost in time, once I’ve lost it. Maybe not. But we keep talking and drinking and remembering and never quite forgetting about our return trip over the spiked fence.

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