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Lessons

By Nick Chandler


The first time I saw Alice she was sitting on a small red bed in the corner of a very loud room. The room belonged to my cousin and was stuffed plump with dark bombing musical equipment, girls (girls!), and a tiny platoon of like-dressed bad musicians from our high school. There was little room for me and I had to stand right next to the lead singer, a gangly long-hared guy who constantly jittered about while he sang—and although it was impossible to tell what he was yelling into the microphone, I held my breath so that nothing I did would come through.

That's how it was then: my cousin was plugged in—way cooler—he's the one on guitar. He was a junior, a musician, a photographer, and I, a mere pubescent freshman from some town in Midwest America that none of these Florida folk had heard of, I collected Pez dispensers and sci-fi novellas.

Alice, as I learned through the next few hours, was not one of the obligatory band-hussies (more of which were arriving now) but the little sister of John, the foul-menthol-mouthed bass player. We were all in my Aunt's back yard sitting around a rusted old-fashioned barbeque that had been converted into a big ugly ashtray with a few buckets of beach sand and the hardened innards of many a spent candle. I didn't smoke then. Listening to some story about this or that person I didn't know, I saw Alice take a cigarette from her brother's pack and walk over to me. I saw her sit down next to me and start talking, and then I had to stop just watching her.

"I'm sorry, my ears are still buzzing."  I leaned in and looked down at her knee. There I saw a mosquito land on the bulb of her skin, but didn't dare touch it.

She slapped her knee and wiped the bug on the green plastic chair, said: "Do you like Newports?"

And I know it was much later (a few months) that she taught me how to shotgun smoke—to blow it back and forth between our lungs—but it might as well have been right then because we shared that cigarette and I tasted the chemical fruit of her lip gloss between my red eye coughing bouts and new nausea, and we laughed, and the night was over, and the next day, and the next. I couldn't get that intangible pseudo-fruit and smoke tang to leave my tongue. But, that's a rhetorical fallacy; I wasn't trying to get it to leave, I was hanging on vibrantly, desperately to its taste.

Dutch, my cousin, was going to take me to bass-player-John's house to, I'm sure, cuss and smoke cigarettes and talk about people I didn't know and play bad loud music, and I was ecstatic.

She was in the kitchen when we arrived and I fought the urge to follow my blood to the back porch and instead stayed in the kitchen and forgot to talk.

She was pleased to see me and I melted. "Want some ice cream?"

"Absolutely."

A few weeks into that summer her dad had bought her an old green automatic mustang and we spent all summer exploring the new streets together.

We stopped at a phone booth in a little suburban park. Alice was a blond. I should have mentioned that earlier. Actually she looked a lot like her C. S. Lewis namesake; she had long straight blond hair that was usually parted down the middle, bangs that couldn't decide if they were really bangs or part of the longer hair (as was the style then), and hints of freckles behind her ears and on the bridge of the nose where she got the most sun. She was beautiful, and thin—we were all thin back then. Her favorite color was baby blue and she often wore tank tops of that hue. Far brighter than the blue of her shirts and socks, cartoon key chains and erasers, were her eyes, like hard hand-blown glass. I remember staring at her through the pane of the clean phone booth—something that didn't exist where I came from—and hearing her muddled high voice ask questions with each sentence.

She was scoring drugs. She got me to do those too. As that summer went on, I got less and less surprised at the things she got me to do. Bildüngsroman they call it, loss of innocence, the rebellious, soul-on-fire teen years. It was that, I suppose, but it didn't feel like it; it felt like I was Vasco da Gama or Kirk, and everything was new and everything was bright.

By the time school started we were best friends. We sat next to each other in Environmental Science and sometimes she would touch my leg under the thick black lab table while we traced chromosomes or mitochondria into our notes. She worked in the school office during third period and would pinch escape passes from the inside drawer which we would deliver to each other straight-faced, before running to the parking lot and out into the greater world.

We had endless hours of mirth spending our parent's money on cheep food and expensive drugs. I was reading The Great Gatsby and Ordinary People and I remember thinking how sad it was that these poor chaps had nothing but longing and waiting to speak of. It was so pitiful that all they could do was look back to brighter times. This was before I had compiled all of her soft things and pacifiers and photographs (then still paper) and hair-ties and bits of writing and even a strand of hair into a neat little box that still sits quietly in my closet. Are these the skeletons they speak of?  Well, it doesn't haunt me as it did Fitzgerald, or Gatsby, or whoever. No, this box is a captain's log, this, a story of my own haughty conquest as I aged into my own, decidedly less bleak, oblivion.

It took me most of that first summer to acclimate to her beauty. She was actually quite fair, an Irish girl. It was the sunrise over Deerfield Beach now and we had spent the whole night somewhere between hallucination and epiphany. All the scribbled notes in my pocket no longer made sense and my jaw was tired from clenching and talking. The sun was still behind a vast gray cloud range and by the time it got above them it was eight thirty and we were on our way home.

The road, I venture to reiterate, was a new place for us. She described the paranoia of driving: besides the constant threat of shadow cops (a favorite game—spot them before they spot you) there were the mechanics of delicate life. She looked to me in shotgun at the red light. "You can never stop driving. If I let go, off the brake now, we would roll right out into traffic and get hit." I looked out at the blur-river of cars that swarmed past our route and put up my hand to stop them with telepathy. They did not cease.

It was a school night, like that mattered, and we were headed for a diner to meet up with my cousin's band and fill our stomachs with terrible eggs and starch so we wouldn't die from all the poison we were planning on ingesting at their rock concert downtown.

The show was at a dirty, poorly lit bar called Happy Daze (a.k.a. Heaven) in West Palm. After helping unload and assemble most of Mark's drum kit, Dutch rewarded me with a pitcher of light American beer that he was able to score from the bar, although underage, because he was with the band. They were being paid for their obnoxious performance with a hundred-dollar bar tab. A cleaver ploy by the bar because our crew, once loosened by a hundred dollars worth of booze, was sure to spend twice as much to keep going.

Drunk, older patrons yelled at the band to play Lynyrd Skynyrd or Rush or anything but what they were. I sat next to Alice sacrificing my left ear to the wall of sound and we drank our comped beer until we were merrily yelling into each other's ears about my cousin's new girl, or that girl, or the new bongo percussionist that we couldn't hear, or whoever. Soon enough I was at the bar, playing it cool, asking for lots of water.

When I got back to the table we started to share the water. I was feeling better and liked this song, my favorite of theirs. All of the people but Alice had left the table, which was great because one of the awkward boys was trying to hit on her, and had now moved on to a more realistic pursuit across the way. I was watching him make this new girl more and more uncomfortable when the most astounding thing happened: Alice leaned into me and put her hand on my hip-pelvis (which would have been enough) and kissed me ridiculously softly before letting a slender bit of ice pass between her lips and into my mouth. I chewed it immediately, nervously, jacked on noreprenephrine (the loquacious chemical responsible for stomach butterflies) and felt the other two lofty chemicals of that holy endorphin trinity (serotonin and dopamine) rush over me in soft warm waves. And I could feel my heart pumping hard hot liquid right into my brain and I thought: kiss her again, and I did. And so went our first kiss. Oh, I should have mentioned that, this was our first kiss.

Soon it was Sunday and John's girl, Sheryl, was showing off her large new (dreadful) tattoo of a koala on her left calf, still puffed up from pricking. We were in the back of John's Suburban and I was watching the world skim past Alice's profile and listening to John change Tom Petty's "Free Falling'" into 'Free Ballin'' as we threatened toward ninety on the highway. And like that we were over ourselves, the horizon did a skateboard trick and I was upside down watching the world recede smoothly for a moment until we crashed down and the gray of the interior and the gray of the road become inseparable. I turned to Alice who looked like she was screaming but I could only hear the static thud-scrape of the machinery, which lowered in frequency as we slowed until it was replaced entirely by the seashore sound of other cars passing.

John had swerved, he said, when a giant white crane flapped out of the air and toward his huge white truck. Everyone was okay, except Sheryl who had suffered a bloody nose and we were all standing out in front of the wreckage watching her catch her blood in her palms and holding our respective girls.

So we were alive again, still, and our bodies ached.

I wanted to tend to Alice but had no auto of my own, and we were both parentally bed-sentenced, having actually incurred a bristling array of hairline fractures in our ribs—corresponding wounds. I wanted to pet her head and microwave her food and make love to her bruised body. I remember, in that week apart from my Alice, eating a brown chicken dinner with my mom and having the sonic lull of our conversation-lack being replaced violently by the shattering of the tall glass bookshelf in the foyer. One of the cats had knocked it over and was, by now, cowering or holding up under some idle couch or bedpost. The glass of the bookshelf had popped exponentially to coat the ample tiling of the entire room. On it we had kept brightly colored, more cherished glass (Junoesque vases and ugly, pricey figurines), hues of which could be seen peppered in with the clear glass of the former shelf like the red and yellow of zits of Mars or Venus amongst the stars.

Alice's room was green. She had hung twenty-some-odd bright softball-sized Nerf balls on her ceiling, each on six inches of heavy fishing line. Her hand and blue wrist would twirl them, any order, until the whole room was under the soft tentacles of her movement. We hug a silk scarf over the television and talked and talked and talked.

By the next summer I had my own car, a red 1992 Toyota Celica. It was in a state of perpetual illness—a hungry, ravenous jalopy. One of its most enduring handicaps, ruptures in the coolant lines, meant it could only run under the Florida sun for a good hour before it would give up its ghost and slunk to the side of the road. If you've never been to South Florida you don't know that the roads run strictly north-south/east-west with very little exception. By now we were three stalls south of Lantana and just past Key Largo.

We were out of traffic's way on an extended soft shoulder with the hood aloft and our heads too close to the engine. The radiator cap was sighing and it rendered a gush of my bottled water into quick steam without faltering. It began to rain a slight mist and to walk through it, as we were, toward the crooked little pocket of sand just down the way, forced all of my bristling epidermis to feel dancing sheets of cold water sparks, jittery and minute, as though I was going to faint.

It was still hot and sunny though, and the water gave off snow-blindness with every wave (gulf blindness?) as it sizzled and churned bright whitecaps and was constantly dying and being reborn.

"You should have been my passenger."  No shoes, her feet were always dirty.

Alice had a grade school niece (Jamie or Jossilin, Judy) and we had been chauffeuring her Flat Stanley everywhere we could think of: Technicolor bowling allies, gravel roofs of unlocked apartment complexes, the endless vista of the everglades, pet shop rodent cages, and now we were in route to the southernmost point of the United States and its big red-yellow concrete anal dong-of-a-monument to snap-capture it with Stanley's paper body in foreground as proof of his voyage. The natives say that photographs capture the soul; these pictures were creating Stanley's.

By the time I saw Alice again she was in college, grade school education, she was going to be "Ms. L" –teach children colors and shapes, nouns and verbs, trace wrinkled Flat Stanleys over long strings of old pastel road maps for the children. She had acquired a fresh layer of baby fat and her pseudo-bangs were gone, both of which made her look younger. But she wasn't, she was older. Her friends in Tallahassee dealt drugs like blackjack cards and we doubled down.

Afterward, I drove the eleven hours home, stall-free now, singing at the top of my lungs. My voice dry, my wallet empty, my love hurtles and hurtles and miles and kilometers and light-years and parsecs away from me; the distance between the cool me and the babbling, sobbing, slime-nosed, headache me quickly became very, very small.

Winter Dreams, they call it. That whole last trip to see her, I should have told you, was completely different than the entirety of my other experiences with her. I, or something in me, had lost the ability to talk to her. Cat-slain, my tongue curled in mouth and my heart fluttered, as always, and we slept head to foot and we sectioned off the substance, and I couldn't say a thing.

I remember I had big, orange-coated multivitamins in my pocket that I kept fluffing around with my twitchy fingers. We were at a bus stop near the college and I broke one of them in half.

"I'll conduct and experiment to see if the ants can utilize the nutrients in the capsule." Chunky, I scraped the two pill nubs across the concrete and the ants were none the wiser, dumber.

She just looked at me, with her fat old face, and didn't know what to say.

It was our last weekend together, I should have said.

 

Nick Chandler's literary career consists of being published twice, once in the 27th issue of Miami Artzine, and once in Touchstone, a private publication out of middle Florida. Sporting an English degree from Stetson University, he's a 25-year-old independent film producer and a freelance writer working out of Los Angeles.


Image: "Alice In Wonderland," by John Tenniel, via Wikimedia Commons.

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