Spring came, damp and bare-limbed; wet boots and a smoke-grey sky. I'm getting over my cold and through the crumpled brown sack of lemon throat lozenges my mother sent me in February.
Alison came back on a Sunday, and brought with her a flood of old memories; though she must have her own, I wonder where ours overlap. It has been over a year, and I was at a loss for what to expect; afraid of how she might react to me, or me to her, now a year more worldly and sharper in her judgment.
She showed up at my door near midnight, when the air still felt like winter. Her things had been left in the car, and she stood, waiting, hands shoved deep in her pockets. I had missed the small of her back beneath my hand; I dismissed the damp cement under my bare feet. Then I asked, nervously, if she had stopped anywhere else before coming here.
She laughed, knew what I meant, and laughed, her hand moving up to brush my cheek.
"No, Nathan, no." Her voice tinkled in the still, cold air. Her lips still parted in the same way when she smiled.
"How are you?" I asked.
And now she is here, this morning. I pause to watch her head of closely-cropped hair, bent over the morning crossword. She eats GrapeNuts from a tin camp-ware mug, and lets her fingers idle on the thick handle of her empty coffee cup. Sun from the east window feels nice on my back, and I have twenty minutes before class.
She suddenly throws down the ballpoint pen she's using: "Give me a nineteen-letter word for 'ridiculously obscure'!" rises from the table, goes to refill her coffee cup.
"They say Confucius does his crosswords with a pen," I quote, seeing if she will remember the song lyrics that once sparked a pseudo-intellectual discussion on the grander implications of using a non-erasable pen, instead of the humble, reliable pencil, to work crossword puzzles—especially the Sunday morning New York Times.
She finishes pouring her coffee and throws back her head, laughing, "I can't find any number 2 pencils in this house, okay?"
I tell her I am glad to see that a year spent studying religious philosophy in Europe's finest universities hasn't given her undue confidence in her crossword puzzling abilities.
"Of course not," she smiles, settling back into her chair. "Except for the Sunday theme puzzles that require an in-depth knowledge of Hegel and Feuerbach. Now those, I can do with a permanent marker."
Alison's presence is something that I'm still getting used to, having missed her and grown sadly accustomed to the lack of her irreverent laughter at my side. Her graduation last June, and near-immediate departure for Berlin, had catapulted me into an uneasy uncertainty of how to approach my last year of college, of what to plan for. Alison is a mover and a doer; I don't think that she will ever be content to rest in the security of one place for more than a year. Her Fulbright was a diversion on the road to evermore; though I know the research both delighted and exhausted her, she has no wish for a year, or even a month, of subsequent easiness and status quo. These two weeks here, with me, are unusual in that she has no obligations, no deadlines, no agenda. Then she will move on to Cambridge, a Ph.D., anything.
I, myself, have little ambition in comparison to this dark and ebullient tornado who entered my life, by chance, during the fall that I was nineteen and still buying the grandiose spiel of Daniel, our mutual acquaintance and—I thought—friend. She would argue a point with him until he would laugh uncomfortably and pretend to become uninterested. I found her crying once, in the most unlikely of places: a showing of an old Mike Meyers film, So I Married an Ax-Murderer, her knees pulled up to her chest, her eyes spilling tears. It was months later before she told me why, and by then I knew the taste of her mouth after she'd been drinking Kahlua and warm milk.
I would prefer to live reclusively in books and film, affording the time to take long meanders in the out-of-doors, write tongue-in-cheek film reviews for subsistence pay, and come up for air now and again to get drunk on cheap liquor with a group of cronies who don't mind my ability to sing La Marseillaise in its entirety after a sufficient degree of inebriation. Where these two worlds of ours will collide, I cannot tell.
It is time for me to go, so I leave her turning pages in the B volume of an encyclopedia, searching for arcane facts about Sir Francis Bacon that can be encapsulated in a six-letter word.
I see Daniel for the first time this week in the caf. He's in his usual attire: the charismatic yet disheveled intellectual look he has honed to his advantage. His eyes sparkle mischievously behind those trademark wire-rim spectacles, his hand thoughtfully stroking the three days worth of stubble darkening his chin as he waits in line, talking animatedly to the girl standing in front of him. He's charming the socks off her.
He spies me later, eating dessert at a table I'm sharing with Everett and Zoe, neighbors of mine from first year. Daniel knows Everett, too, and he approaches us, slamming his tray down in a Daniel sort of way, and studiously addressing the two of us.
"Everett!" he crows, exuding intellectual glee. "You missed the most fascinating lecture today in Weisman's class: 'The Necessity of the Gulag for the 1930's Soviet Economy'." And Daniel is off, warm with sarcasm and the sound of his own voice. I raise an apologetic eyebrow at Zoe, and mainly focus on the pistachio ice cream I'm eating. Yet, I catch the glance Daniel shoots at Zoe, and I think I know it. He continues to expound on this professor's faulty views regarding Soviet labor camps, and when he pauses, Zoe cuts in.
"Well hello, Daniel," as though she had only just been pleasantly surprised by his presence. "And what role are you playing today?" The sarcasm is not at all subtle. This, of course, does not faze our man: he takes a french fry from Everett's tray and chews thoughtfully, almost contemplatively.
"Hmmmmmmmmm" (his dramatic prelude). And then: "I think I'm playing Hamlet right now." He sprinkles more salt on Everett's french fries.
"Really. Because I can't quite see it. Are you sure you're playing it right?"
"Oh yeah. See, Hamlet was kind of a jerk." And he winks at her, returns to his discussion with Everett. Zoe looks elsewhere, takes small bites of her salad.
When Daniel and I were first-years we would sometimes sit for hours on the evening-dim balcony above our dorm, smoking Marlboros and talking shit. Daniel's usual posture was back against the brick wall, knees pressed to his chest so that his long arms could wrap around them, one hand easily flicking ashes to the ground below. My legs would dangle through the wide rungs of the railing, eyes watching the sky. We rarely looked at each other as we spoke.
Daniel once asked me whether I considered myself a good person. My reply was a normal one, that expected of an eighteen-year-old lacking life experience. Daniel's was not.
"You really think you're a bad person?" My tone was disbelief. His voice was flat, matter-of-fact. He flicked more ashes, said little else. He seemed resigned.
I haven't been up to that balcony since second year, and I don't smoke with Daniel anymore. Daniel still smokes, and I know he has little trouble finding company.
"I could run for fucking president of this campus, and I'd easily win," he once told Alison. "But that doesn't mean that anyone knows me, really. That doesn't mean that I'm not alone."
He was right; I'm not sure that anyone could know him. I've wondered whether he sometimes loses any real self he has in the legions of roles and personalities he embodies and discards to fit the occasion.
I look at him now, patently cheerful, just cynical enough, outwardly interested in someone else's opinion.
"Everything he'd say used to seem so honest," Alison has mused, disgusted and sad. So we don't believe him at all anymore. I have never talked directly to Daniel about Alison, but then, it was Alison who left him—and she has given up talking about him, mostly. She regards him cynically and, ostensibly, pities his predicament: "His self", she has said, her eyes disgusted, her voice tired. Daniel is cordial to Alison when their paths cross, acts as if there were nothing at all, is charming and clever. Had he really felt something for Alison? How could he, or anyone, separate it from the superficial layers?
"I don't know," says Alison, when I wonder aloud. "He's so convincing—" Yet she wrinkles her nose: "He just likes being around naked girls." His underground reputation, of sorts, will attest to this. Not common knowledge, not part of his crowd-pleaser persona, yet more than a few women have been made sharply aware of the sort of conscienceless Lothario that Daniel is.
And still, I don't think that Alison was truly an example of this. Alison lasted longer, and it was she who left abruptly; he had little control, for once. Even for Daniel, Alison was different.
"Do I smell like rain?" She is leaning against me on the ratty beige couch we are sharing. Wearing ragged flannel pajamas and grey wool socks, she turns her face toward mine. Her short hair is still damp from the storm she was caught in not too long before. I press my nose to her shorn head, inhale dramatically.
"I dunno What does rain smell like?
"Ohh—like damp earth, and worms, and—and wet." She half sighs, half giggles.
"Then yes," I tell her. "Yes, you smell very much like rain."
"Good." And she relaxes against my shoulder, the weight of her body solid and comforting.
I am jolted from thick sleep by the jangle of the phone. Beside me, Alison mutters something in her sleep, and I pad swiftly, barefooted on carpet, to the phone.
It is Daniel. His voice is somewhat light and apologetic, surprised that he has waken me. I carry the phone into the hall, shutting the door carefully.
He apologizes once more: "Christ, Nathan. I'm sorry—I thought you usually were up until two-ish. " I let this slide, curious as to why he has suddenly phoned me up at this hour, after years of impersonal and clever conversation.
"I'm reading Hegel right now: Phenomenology of Mind, on philosophy of religion. And I really need to know the terms that Feuerbach uses to dispute his concept of God. In The Essence of Christianity. You know it?"
"Well, do you remember what he says about 'ego' in his chapter on the personal god?"
I am quiet.
"I swear to God, I used to have that book, and now I can't find it and the Reg. is closed. Do you know, Nathan, what I'm talking about?"
"No, I'm sorry, Daniel. I've never owned the book." And I hang up. One bad lie deserves another.
Alison is still asleep, her head now on my pillow; her breathing is steady, reassuring.
How did he know?
(Alyssa Pelish is a 1999 graduate of Carleton College. Her work has been published in The Harvard Summer Review and in Manuscript. She is a first-year student in the fiction writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.)