I picked up the morning paper and Sam had died. At first I glanced straight past the little blurb -- I don't make a habit of reading obituaries -- but some morbid impulse drew my eyes back down to that lower left hand corner. And there was the little box with his name inscribed, blurry in ink.
Samuel Evans, 31, of an undisclosed illness, at his home in Southern California, July 28th ... etc. etc. ... nobody's really reading this so why should we bother.
Coffee frozen in mid-air halfway to my mouth, I read and reread what little there was. The three or four sentences that were now the sum of my friend. Then I put the mug back down on the porcelain, went into the bedroom and lay there staring at the ceiling.
I noticed that the system of cracks in the plaster seemed to have gotten more expansive since the last time I'd looked. An endless road map of intersecting byways, leading nowhere. I wondered if Julia knew yet.
In the fall of 1990 I was 20 years old and Sam was 21. College
was a joke for two guys who knew as goddamn much about the world as we did, so classes were neglected like so many cancelled lunch dates in the Hollywood I'd later know. New York City was a big birthday cake and we were these skinny, hungry kids from little towns who couldn't wait to get the icing all over our faces.
I was a playwriting major and Sam was studying music theory, so we had all those loads of pretension that artsy type young people get in the early years of college, when you can still take seriously things like socialism, and guerilla theater, and Letters to a Young Poet and so forth. Not that it's not possible to take those things seriously in later life, but well, it's not. Or at least it isn't if you want to get paid to write a comedy about a bunch of kids who sell their souls to the devil in order to get laid. Which I did last year, and let me tell you the mortgage payments made it very emotionally satisfying.
We'd go to these great parties on rooftops and Sam would look out at the city and make wild pronouncements. Sometimes they made
sense -- the usual grand stuff about our magnificent futures as artists. A lot of other times, though, it was just clever gobbledygook. Or often, not so clever.
"I want to fuck the Heavens, Eddie."
"Sure you do, Sam. I think maybe you're a little drunk."
"No, no. I mean it. I am going stick my cock between to fluffy clouds and just, you know, fuck the shit out of 'em."
"Yeah, well I heard the Heavens don't put out, man."
"Yeah, Sam. Just a big tease. That's all."
But Sam was already pistoning his hips forward, thrusting vainly at the sky.
"Take it, bitch," was all he said.
I was the quiet one, Sam was the leader. He used to come up with these stupid dares and I'd do them, like the time he made me tell a waitress I was the late French existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre." She didn't know who that was and mainly looked confused. It didn't help that Sam insisted every time we said it, we had to say it just like that: "the late French existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre." The whole thing. No abridgement allowed.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Some more coffee for my good friend, the late French existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre."
"I'm sorry, but my buddy, the late French existential thinker Jean-Paul
Sartre, is going to pay by Amex."
"Well I don't care what name it says on the card, I am the late French
existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre and that is my Amex. The Amex Gold card of the late French existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre. Member since 1931."
Finally, the poor woman -- in her forties and not much of a fan of bullshit from the precocious college set -- just blew up at us.
"The late French extended thinker what's his name is about to get a foot in his ass."
A burly member of the kitchen staff, whose name I think was Jose, eventually emerged from the back to deal with us. While Sam made some very interesting and trenchant remarks with regard to The Transcendence of the Ego, one can only assume that Jose found them lacking in some regard, since he grabbed us by the scruffs of our scrawny necks and escorted us to the door.
Sam never got the chance even to discuss L'explication d'Etranger. Something tells me Jose would have failed to appreciate his analysis even if he had.
I heard the front door creak open and Julia's footsteps in the hall. For a small woman she tread pretty heavy, as if each step was an attempt to make some firm mark on the earth. I just lay there on the bed and waited. A moment later, she stood in the doorway.
"Did you hear?" My voice was low. Maybe I was trying to say it without her hearing.
"Lisa called this morning. She saw it in the paper."
Julia's face was blank. Not sad, not anything. Impassive and perfect, an empty vessel to be filled in with whatever I might give her. I said nothing and she just stood there for a few seconds. The waning daylight through the window caught her profile in a lovely way that reminded me of being young and having more to offer. I wanted badly to cry but nothing came. So I looked back up at the cracks in the ceiling, purposeful in their steady, winding journey.
Julia turned and walked out of the room. I could hear her moving around in the kitchen. The coffee maker sputtering to life. The refrigerator opening, its low hum, and the soft rush of water from the tap. Sam had loved her first.
She would come into our room at night, slip into that tiny bed with Sam, and I would listen to the sounds of them until I fell asleep. At first, of course, it bothered me, but soon their close murmurs became another sound of the city: horns and the rush of traffic, shouted imprecations from the street, and their throaty couplings. Later, the measured sounds of a woman's breathing.
Soon we were three and I didn't mind. Julia was quiet and really rather attractive. Sullen maybe, but when a smile did breach the surface of that tight-drawn mouth it was like a door opening and letting light into a shuttered room. And also there was her laugh.
I have nothing to say about that. But if you heard it you would want to change your life.
OK, that was crap. I feel like I'm somehow 20 again. But really, she had this great laugh. I haven't done it justice. I guess that's why I became an LA hack with a place in the hills and not some starving genius in a grotto.
Months went by. Sam got wilder. I got quieter. I sneaked looks at Julia when I thought she wasn't looking. That winter, we went to a Christmas party.
Sam stood on the roof of some rich kid's Murray Hill apartment and shouted things at the city as if it had done him some imagined wrong. I watched and shivered while Julia waited downstairs.
"Fucking fucker fucks. You fuckers. You fuckers. You fucks."
"That's a poem, Sam. Remember to write it down when you get home. Now come on inside."
"I am not amused by your sarcasm. When this city is mine ... when everything is mine ... you'll be the first with your back up against the wall."
I laughed. "Keep going with that little fuck thing. It was in iambic pentameter, right?"
We got downstairs and looked around. A beefy kid from Frat Party Central Casting told us Julia went home. More swearing from Sam. More shivering from me on the long walk downtown.
And that would be that. Sam was passed out in his bed. Julia sat cross-legged on the floor of our dorm room. I lay in my own bed, staring at the ceiling. There were no cracks in it, but it was fascinating just the same. We talked and the glances I sneaked at Julia were less and less furtive.
"We're both thinkers. Practical types," she said.
She was right. We were practical. We didn't tell Sam until the end of the semester. I think it cemented his decision to drop out. But he was sliding into something else even before that; he cared less and less about the usual things by then anyway. He very likely would have done it even if we hadn't. Sooner or later.
In my house in the hills, I was frozen on my back. Alone on that big bed. I couldn't get some lyrics from an old song out of my skull.
The world is collapsing around our ears...
I lay very still and tried not to think or breath.
"You need any help in there, honey?" I stared up at that ceiling, listening to the long silence in response. I repeated the question. I wanted to move but I couldn't. And anyway, where would I go? Not in there. Not to her. I didn't know how even to begin.
In my head I pictured the obituary. I could see the newsprint, black, stark and incontrovertible.
...were no surviving relatives.
Southern California, July 28th.
I realized something. It was three days before my 31st birthday. This is what it comes down to, I thought. And it wasn't bitter. This year would be all right. Because in the end, this is what it comes down to.
Suddenly, the cracks in the ceiling seemed OK. Everything would continue in its course and I would not impede it. From the kitchen, I could hear the sound of Julia crying.