The leaves were just beginning to change color, and we were sitting up on Mount Tabor, having a cute little picnic, six of us, and Jean told us she had a dream about flying.
Louis said it meant she was dreaming about sex. Louis says a lot of dumb stuff like that, quoting Freud or Jung or Shakespeare but not really understanding what it means. He is, of course, my best friend. Sometimes we choose our friends simply because they make us look better.
But Jean told us it wasn’t about sex, it was about flying. Her porcelain hands went up to her red thatch of hair, and it was as if she was dreaming again, except we were all in it. The sky was deep as the ocean, she said, and lapis, flecked with gold from a setting sun. Snake-like bands of clouds lay uneasily on the horizon, perhaps signaling a night thunderstorm. She stepped off the shrinking earth, kept going on a tangent to its sphere, just like that. Simple. The sun was directly in front of her, but she had owl-eyes, falcon-eyes, and she looked into it and saw only its quietly burning heart. She swooped. Up, further, further, until she left the smog and the grit of the earth behind, until the air became thin and her lungs strained and shot long, lancing pains across her chest and arms. The blue of the sky deepened to indigo, and the sun slipped cautiously beneath the rim of the world, and she opened her eyes and found them streaming with tears. And she knew what it was like to be holy.
It was a big build-up, and Daphne, superfluous as ever, shattered the quiet moment after Jean stopped talking by saying, “Coooool …” and trailing off. Jean’s hands, which had been hovering with a life of their own above and in her hair, slowly went over her face, as if she were clearing her mind from a trance. Then we were all ourselves again, and it was just a pleasant autumn afternoon in Portland.
Jean has always had that power, and since I met her, twenty years ago, she has used it to charm and captivate everyone she meets. She was my first friend; I met her soon after I entered kindergarten, and we formed a bond that has weathered adolescence, puberty, and college. I fell under her spell precisely because of her power — when the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and explain a little bit about ourselves, Jean stood up and told the class about her father, an international banker who did deals in cities like Paris, London, Frankfurt, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Sydney. My teacher bought it all, and so did everyone in the class, but I was the only one with enough courage to talk to this obviously exotic stranger. Therefore, I was the only one who found out her dad was an air-conditioner repairman who had never been on an airplane before. When I asked her why she made the story up, she shrugged and said, “Which father would you rather have?”
“I wish I could fly,” Louis said the next night, during Monday Night Football. Since Louis met Jean, our freshman year at U. of P., he’s had the most extreme crush on her. He maintains she is out of his league, but Keith and I keep telling him that’s no reason not to declare himself. Instead, he hangs on her every word and follows her around like a lost child at the mall.
“What about you, C?” he said, looking at me with a face full of pepperoni pizza.
Louis is the only one allowed to call me C. My full name is Chester William Abernathy, a name I used to loathe. When I was young, I introduced myself as Bill, and it stuck. Now, I kind of like my name, and I introduce myself as Chester or Chet, but all my friends still call me Bill. Only Louis is allowed to call me C. It has become a manifestation of our friendship. And only Jean calls me by my surname. I never asked why.
Keith came out of the bedroom before I could answer. He was carrying his gym bag, which we believe is surgically attached to his hand. “Hey, where you going?” I asked.
“Keith, you ever wish you could fly?” Louis said, but our roommate was gone.
“He already does,” I said.
I remember my first time on an airplane as if it were a movie, and I was the director. It was like I stepped out of myself in order to get a better view of the experience. I have a lot of memories like that, where I’m looking down on myself, and I don’t know if it’s common or peculiar to me. I’ve never had the balls to ask anyone.
I was thirteen when Mom and Dad decided to take me and my sister to Walt Disney World. They had been to Disneyland some years earlier and had not been impressed, so it was Florida for us. The actual vacation is mostly a blur, but the plane ride was a different story. Dorothy (my sister) is three years older than I am, and she was giggly and slightly flirty with the male flight attendant and a teenage boy sitting in the row behind us. But I was terrified, thrilled, and anticipatory, all at once. There’s that dryness in your mouth when you start to roll down the runway, the thumping of your heart, the tug of gravity that presses you back into your seat, and that instant, infinitesimal and subtle, when you leave the ground. I was expecting fanfare, a discernible lift, but instead I got the strangest of sensations, like I lost contact with the world, which I guess I did. I remember gripping the arms of the seat, sweat in my eyes, my stomach dropping and compressing, and visions of fire searing my mind. Even now, after I’ve had so many different experiences, nothing has compared to that feeling. Then the pressure was building in my ears, and for the first time I thought: I’m flying. I am not on the earth anymore. There was something impossibly grand about it, and I remember smiling. Everything would be all right.
Only the rare few of us fly without leaving the ground. I am lucky enough to know one of them. And Louis is in love with her.
“Ask her out,” I told him after he confessed his attraction to her. Those three words, easy to say and hard to do. I still say it, over seven years later. Louis has gone with a few women in that time, just, I think, to keep up appearances. He had been attracted to those women, it’s true, but with Jean, it’s completely different.
“You know that way she has,” he said to me, a few years ago, during one of his extreme pining-for-Jean periods, “when she gets that far-off look in her eyes, like just in the middle of a sentence, or when she’s not included in the conversation right then? God, those eyes, staring at something only she can see, like it’s so important that she can’t take her eyes off of it. I love that look.”
“I know it.”
“And the way, the way, you know, how she holds her hand over her mouth when someone tells her something either really sad or really funny, and you can see her tense up? Like she’s so full of emotion it’s all she can do to keep it in, press it down?”
“And the way she seems like she’s above us all? Aloof, angelic, ethereal? Like she’s floating through our lives, like none of us can touch her.” That was when Louis got silly. Jean was human, but because she was oblivious to his desire, he saw her as unconcerned with human affairs. Which was ridiculous.
Jean fell in love when she was fifteen with Mister Stoyanovich, our English teacher. He was a young guy — thirty, maybe — and she had what I thought was a typical crush on him. Until she told me.
“I did it with him,” she said one day after school, as we were walking home. I remember her arm. It was trembling, even though it was a warm April day.
“With Mister Stoyanovich. Sex.”
I swear my heart stopped. I know my feet did. Jean took two steps before she realized I was no longer at her side.
“What’s wrong, Abernathy?”
“You tell me you had sex with our English teacher and then you ask what’s wrong?”
“It’s only sex. I never did it before, and I figured, if I’m going to lose my virginity, it might as well be to someone who knows what they’re doing. I mean, guys our age probably think it’s like playing basketball, or something.”
“When did this happen? Jesus, Jean, you’re crazy! That dude should be in jail!”
She held her head up proudly. “Grow up, Abernathy. Anyway, you remember yesterday, when I said I wanted to get extra help from Missus Bodie? Well, I lied. I’m sorry.”
I just stood there, as she changed in front of me. No longer was she just my friend, a fellow kid. She had transformed into a sexual being, and I felt my heart clench. Could we still be friends?
“What’s wrong, Abernathy?”
“You. You’re different. Flushed. Alight.”
“You’re still a virgin.”
“Yes. You know you’d be the first person I’d tell.”
“Would you like me to show you?”
“What? No! Can we … just drop it? Please? It’s too bizarre. Maybe I’ll be able to deal with it after a few days. But … Mister Stoyanovich? I’ll never be able to go to English again.”
Sex became the great divide in our lives. We were still best friends, still close and at times inseparable, but that one little act plunged a chasm between us. I lost my virginity a year later, with a girl I’d been dating for about two months, and neither of us has ever been lacking for romantic relationships. But Jean became exotic after she had sex with Mister Stoyanovich, and I never considered the creepiness of it, because she never showed any ill effects of it. In a way, Louis was right — she was aloof, because her lovers always seemed to be just that, lovers. Not people we hung out with, not college students we knew or people she worked with, but men she picked up, who knows where, and discarded after brief periods of time. It made Louis crazy.
“That guy’s no good for her,” he said about her latest conquest, a forward on the Winterhawks.
“Yeah, but he got that hat trick against Kamloops last week,” I said.
“Don’t joke. This is Jean.”
“She’s just a person.”
“Maybe that’s why you never got anywhere with her.”
“Like I tried.”
Louis stared intently at me, like I was somehow translucent and he was having difficulty making me out. “She is …”
“Just ask her out, Louis. This endless wasting away is boring. It makes you boring. Just go up to her, tell her you like her, and take it from there. She’s a wonderful person. She couldn’t do better than you.”
I was lying to him, however, about being boring. His obsession made him interesting. Too often in this world, people aren’t committed to anything, unless it’s something hateful. Very few people are as committed as Louis is to Jean, to her ideal. He would die for her, I’m not joking, and she has no idea.
“You know, C,” Louis said after remaining silent for a few minutes, “that dream she told us about. I can relate. The feeling of flight, unrelated to sex, which is the classic interpretation, is still sexual. Because it’s liberating, exhilarating, and spontaneous. Jean touched me with that story.”
“You’re touched when she burps, Louis.”
“In a strange way, I was having the same dream as she was talking. We were linked.”
“She’s a natural storyteller.”
“I’m going to ask her out.”
Jean called me the next day.
“Louis asked me out, Abernathy,” she said.
I felt a bead of sweat inch over my right temple. “About time.”
“You mean you knew?”
“I’ve been telling him to ask you out for seven years, Jean.”
“You bastard, keeping a secret like that. What gave you the right?”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes. Louis is sweet, and cute. He’s been a good friend. And he was very eloquent. The kind of guy I’ve been looking for.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“Don’t be like that, Abernathy. I know you haven’t always approved of my men, but I’ve always been loyal to you. You’re my best friend.”
“Well, I have to go. Can I ask you something, Jean?”
“Don’t tell me about your dreams anymore.”
That night, I had my own dream. Louis, Jean, and I were sitting on a hill, grass scorched brown in the summer heat, the sun a blob of grease frying in the sky, and all around was the smell of the ocean. We were all talking, just like we do, talking about nothing. Others were in my peripheral vision, but they were just shadows. The talk became cacophonous, and Jean and Louis stood up, reached out their hands to each other, and, linked, flew away, their smiles leaving vapor trails in the smoggy skies. As they flew, the pollution opened up and blue appeared for them, swallowing them, then closing up. I sat, alone except for the figments in the corner of my vision, and toyed with the dead grass. Around me, the wind picked up a little, and dry scraping leaves appeared from nowhere and coalesced into a form, gathering grass and smog into it, until it became a human figure, with blazing red hair, almost clownish, and sad eyes leaking cloudy tears. I reached out to the facsimile of a friend who had just flown off, but it dissolved as the wind grew stronger, and I woke. The dream burned away in the darkness of my room. I looked. Louis’s bed was empty.
[Welcome to Greg’s Fiction Corner, where every week at this time you have the opportunity to read a short story written by me, Greg (hence “Greg’s Fiction Corner” – I’m clever that way, you know). These are stories I wrote between about 1992-2002 or so, and they’ve been sitting around for a while and they’re never going to get published, so I thought I’d share them with you. Ironically, this one DID get published – yay, me! – in a tiny literary magazine in Erie, PA (I think it was Erie, but don’t quote me on it). It’s the only story I’ve ever had published, and my free copy of the “magazine” (it wasn’t much of one) holds pride of place among my many, many rejection letters. Anyway, I hope you like these – some are better than others, some are quite long, some are quite short, and they all take place in the same “universe” – basically, Portland in the 1990s/early 2000s. This means characters can re-appear, and we’ll see the three principal characters in this little melodrama again, in a few different places. I hope you enjoyed this, but if you didn’t, I will refund your money, and you can let me know how bad a writer I am in the comments! I can take it!!!]