The purpose of life is to be virtuous. After failing at that, the purpose of life becomes to contort your interpretation of reality until your character flaws are recontextualized as virtues.
-Conversations with Lauren
ii. black majick woman
Andrea has no inner ear. This little tidbit of information emerged as we were en route to what pathetically passes for "downtown," that being Madison, to scrounge for such exotic, nonindigenous-to-Buffalo-Creek items as novels which do not have paintings of Fabio on the cover. My immediate response to this revelationette was to dig my fingers into her faux shag cowskin seat covers (I was never sure what part was faux, the shag or the cow, but decorum forbade asking). Andrea may as well have told me that she considered the Drive on the Right Side of the Street Rule needlessly puritanical and outmoded.
Allow me a moment to share some background on Andreas ride, possibly the most heinous piece of machinery ever to roll out of Detroit and not just because it was slightly less aerodynamic than a brick. No, I call your attention to the tail fin, that bizarre automotive widget introduced in the 1948 Cadillac by semi-insane designer Harley Earl, which Detroit laughed their heads off over until the general public started buying them en masse. The tail fin craze peaked with the farcically Buck Rogers 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, which Andrea says was introduced in that halcyon period "shortly after the invention of the muscle engine, but shortly before the invention of taste." Andrea drooled and fretted over them in showrooms, but even as a spoiled rich girl was fortunately not likely to afford one in her lifetime.
She settled for a close second, a cherry red 1957 Chevy BelAir convertible with a white vinyl top. The reason fuzzy dice were invented. The beau idéal of greaserdom. Her tail fins may have merely been a B-cup, but Andrea compensated by keeping them buffed to a pornographic gloss. And lest there be any confusion as to whether or not Andreas choice of moterage intentionally flirted with the equivalent of farting in church, she had the horn rigged to play a selection of such vaaaaguely impolitic ditties as America from West Side Story, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah from Disneys Song of the South, and Rodgers & Hammersteins I Enjoy Being a Girl.
In keeping with the spirit of schizophrenic anachronism, Andrea capped the entire affair off with a brazenly authentic raccoon tail, commissioned from a taxidermist three towns over. Meant to flutter dramatically in the wind, instead it clung to the antenna like an agoraphobic ferret. On the flimsy pretext that the muskrat-thing cemented her status as Flapper Nouveau, Andrea was prone to pepper her speech with both Jazz Baby and Gangsta slang. For me this made Andrea a shoe-in for the cover of "Garish and Unpalatable Affectations Monthly," but the boys generally considered her "one pimptastic sheba."
For reasons my generation should have no business knowing if we werent pathetic boomer shadows, we called Andrea's wayback machine The Red Zeppelin. Or sometimes the Red Zep, or particularly when blunted the Zep.
"Geeze Louise, will you chill out?" Andrea was easily panicked by the panic of others. "Its no big deal, okay? I just have no innate sense of up or down. Very little of which is required for driving."
I nodded vaguely, but the frontal lobes were too busy number-crunching to mount a really credible reply. Andreas admission regarding her sense of balance (or lack thereof) collapsed so much of her mystery; for me it was the dénouement of our relationship, the one point through which all threads of information and intimation passed. I correctly sussed that it would be impolitic to mention this, however, and chose instead to focus on the purely mechanical ramifications:
"How do you walk around without falling over?"
Andrea frowned, suggesting that I was being trés gauche in trying to spin this little physical defect into a full-blown anecdote, a la the mountain and the molehill. [exquisitely-pitched sigh] "Its not like Im blind, Dina." I chose to interpret Andreas undue emphasis on the word blind as evidence of an especially toothy and savage defense mechanism, seeing as I wear Coke-bottle cheaters and have for so long that for generations my descendants will be born with little eyeglass-supporting bridges built into their noses.
"So you decide the direction of up by visual clues? What is it you tend to look at, exactly? Buildings? Trees?"
The Zep had reached dangerous and illegal speeds, Andreas knuckles ominously white on the steering wheel. We were cruising up route 51 like her inexhaustible and voracious pathologies made physical. Tiny children riding in the car ahead of us stopped arguing about who was entitled to which portion of the back seat to devote their full energies to staring at the Zeppelin in perhaps the first real moment of abject terror of their young lives. I experienced momentary flashes of these children in twenty years, sprawled on those wonderful leather fainting-couches favored by psychiatrists overly entranced by period films of old Vienna, repeating again and again the litany of the demon-faced high school student and her Hell-born Chariot of Death.
Some intuition told me it might be wisest to back down vis-à-vis the inner ear discussion.
"So, anyway, which bookstores do you want to hit first?" I asked with badly-faked nonchalance.
Andrea immediately saw her opening, dove for it. "Third Eye?" Despite a professed disbelief in conversational undercurrents, Andrea has always seemed especially deft at taking advantage of them.
I managed to pitch my sigh just slightly below the dull roar of the Zep. I dont need a third eye, I thought ruefully. I have a goddamn inner ear.
"An autographed book," Andrea said, handing me the item in question. "Is there anything more wonderful in life?"
An autographed book which doesnt bear a photograph of the author on the cover, I thought to myself, but aloud only "hmmmed." The object of Andreas affection was Wealth Without Risk, ostensible nonfiction by Charles Givens. The author had pulled the amazing scam of having been written up in Investment magazine as a charlatan (the autobiographical information in his books is mostly wishful thinking, hes regularly criminally convicted, his "risk free" tax advice landed several people in jail), and then including on future printings the blurb "As featured in Investment magazine!!" a trick so unbelievably slimy I was grudgingly impressed.
Andrea was working her way towards a coagulant of diatribes arguably written by Anthony Robbins, a seven-foot-tall financial Sun Yung Moon whom I find terrifying, if for no other reason than that he was born to play Lurch from the Addams Family. He has amassed a fortune by telling people such brain-splunchingly insightful truths as "Believe in yourself," for which people pay him vast sums of money. He even publishes a newsletter, called The Robbins Report , which is a bad pun on The Robb Report, a haute monde snob magazine. Unfortunately the readership of The Robbins Report is an excellent representation of the sort of people on whom puns are wasted.
As we strolled through the financial planning for people with no grip on reality section, I found myself leaning about 4° to the left by way of experimentation. Andrea would match my angle to the floor for a few moments, but then shed look at a bookshelf or group of people and right herself again. She seemed to be adjusting unconsciously.
"Explain to me again what so many Get Rich Quick books are doing in a New Age bookstore," I suggested in my friendliest, this-is-not-a-trap voice. Fortunately, Andrea is so pleased with opportunities to talk about herself that shell stroll blithely into the most poorly camouflaged verbal ambush.
"These arent Get Rich Quick books, for your information. Theyre handbooks to personal growth and power."
"One result of which is that reading them will make you rich."
"Thats a common by-product of actualizing yourself fully, yes." Andreas protective layer of bullshit was thin, but it instantly healed over with fresh rationalizations like some zombie in a bad sci-fi movie.
I redoubled my efforts. "Implying that at least some of the people shopping here have a vision of personal growth which doesnt include getting rich quick?" I didnt even get into Andreas use of actualize as a verb. She might defend it by pointing out how impactful it was, and Ive been down that road too many times.
"Geeze Louise, Dina, why do you always have to be so cynical?" Andrea had attained her tease-me-one-iota-more-and-Ill-flip voice, to which my response was making a big deal of glancing at the books in the arms of those around us, the titles of which without exception contained the words Get, Rich, or Quick (I had gathered this evidence before launching into my point, a trick Id picked up from Lauren). My brilliant machinations were lost on Andrea, however, who was already wandering off into the speculative fiction section.
While some would define "speculative fiction" as the result of having asked the question, "How will technology effect the future of mankind?" I harbor suspicions that the motivational question behind this particular selection of books was more along the lines of, "Exactly how much cash can we milk from the idiots willing to read apparently endless further exploits of dot dot dot insert your favorite science fiction character here?"
Andreas three favorite books are Elric of Melniboné, Xenocide, and The Bridges of Madison County. They seem a disparate bunch, I know, but they all share two important characteristics: (a) They were all written in just under two weeks, and (b) Each of them give me intestinal cramps.
My theory is theres a strong relationship between A and B, especially since (as Americas great undiscovered writer) Ive discovered that one doesnt really begin inching away from the "utter crap" phase until circa ARN-5 (Agonizing Rewrite Numero Five). I believe Andreas favorite writers chose instead to let fly with their first drafts, in effect passing that agony on to the reader. She and I have nearly come to fisticuffs on this point, her position being that belaboring something steals the magic from it, and all good art is spontaneous, and et cetera, while my counter-position tends to be along the lines that it must be very comforting to have such a glib facility to reason hard work away as irrelevant, especially when youre as famously lazy as Andrea "Ill do my book report Sunday night" Moffet.
Gracie once attempted to assuage some childhood slight with the ludicrous claim that schoolmates who argued with my every position were demonstrating concern for my ideas, and by extension for me. If true, one may draw the inference that Andrea and I share a sprawling, epic affection, in glorious Technicolor with a cast of thousands
Andrea was always particularly entranced by volumes in a chronology, the longer the better. I attribute this to a childhood confusion as to the relative merits of quantity as contrasted with quality. She can tell you the most obscure details about the imaginary worlds shes developed a fondness for: Does Stormbringer ever mistakenly conjure a mere worrisome cloud? How do the Chronicles of Narnia compare to other religious propaganda targeted at minors? Conversely, shed be hard pressed to cough up any specifics regarding the president of the United States, other than that he proved to be a crack shot against the aliens.
I guess its hard for reality to compete with, say, Star Trek. In real life you cant tell whether someone is sneaky and underhanded or not just by whether he has pointy teeth and a skin condition.
"Not to overhammer a decidedly uninteresting point," I began, reflecting briefly that I might be as lacking in the diplomacy department as certain of my friends have suggested, "but isnt this a mismatched collection of books? Science fiction, elf and dragon flotsam, homeopathic medicine, get rich quick, and pop psychology self-help books? Please tell me theres a common thread more reassuring than the obvious: absolute detachment from reality."
Andrea tore herself away from L. Ron Hubbards Mission Earth, the only series to my knowledge in which new volumes appear on a regular basis despite the authors death. Andreas face revealed her low opinion of those who interrupt the absorption of such hallowed and sublime literature.
"Ish kabibble, Dina."
"Which in modern parlance means...?"
She burst into equine laughter, totally undermining my attempt to piss her off. I hate when Andrea answers cruelty with good spirits, sometimes brightening a full-on bad mood Ive been nursing all morning. On a handful of particularly despicable instances shes gotten me to giggle.
"You could always make me laugh, Puppy," Andrea said with genuine compassion. Sudden flashback to our depress-a-thon the previous summer, when she first lent me the canine sobriquet. Andrea had phoned out of the blue and invited me over for a week-long slumber party, the occasion being her father and his boyfriend were in Europe sans children, and her younger sister Caldera was staying with neighbors. Andrea was very particular in outlining the rules: I was allowed to wear only pajamas, preferably dorky flannels. I could bring food provided it was fattening, music provided it was depressing, and rented videos provided they were directed by bleakly unimaginative self-styled geniuses (fortunately, the 90s have provided this particular resource in great abundance). "Im gorgeously depressed, Puppy. Sumptuously depressed. In fact, Ive just spent the last three days convincing the book club to overnight me a copy of Final Exit, then when it finally arrived I decided that it was too upbeat to take seriously."
Andrea answered the door in a pair of novelty bear-costume pajamas with little ears on the hood. She carried a gray, shredded rag at all times, which I was given to understand was the remains of her childhood teddybear, Mr. Fluffy.
Ive always been a sucker for the extremes of human behavior. We spent a full week in bed, seldom rising before noon and passing most evenings blunted and ice-creamed to the gills. Occasionally Andrea would jury-rig little ersatz voodoo dolls of whichever boy had provided her with the excuse to wallow in her own emotional detritus, finding innumerable ways to mutilate it beyond recognition before tossing it finally on the fire we kept burning for one solid week in her otherwise empty kidney-shaped pool. To this day I can recall what most household appliances smell like oxidized.
At first our little visit was merely depressing in the pedestrian sense, but after a while we got a good rhythm going, becoming so depressed it was a novelty, and thus in its own way entertaining. Andrea began stringing together portmanteau words á la Lewis Carol to describe our Earth-shaking state of gloom: Our depressence. Our darklination. Our kvetch-in. We were proud forager-explorers of the frontiers of melancholy, heroically sacrificing ourselves to bring back some hidden and mystical knowledge that would benefit all of mankind. The Lewis and Clark of dourness.
Things might have gone on like this indefinitely, had Lauren not appeared one morning to break the spell. She was wearing one of her outfits that lets you know not only that she is jogging, but to what benefit. She pushed her way past us into the kitchen, where her unerring rich-girl radar drew her instantly to the empty fast-food containers and ashtrays overflowing with marijuana remnants. She inspected the conflagration in the pool, the books littering every floor. Andrea and I had acted out the best bits from Kafka, Nietzsche, Philip K. Dick, expertly embodying Joseph K., Zarathustra and Deckard with sock puppets. Somehow the last straw was our lovingly-crafted Gregor Samsa, a repurposed gray wool number we had appropriated from Calderas unmentionables drawer, little cockroach-legs glued down each side. Lauren picked this up between her thumb and forefinger briefly before dropping it back on the coffee table as if it were crawling with maggots. Throughout this surprise inspection she remained expressionless, declining to grace us even with eye contact. Finally she looked up, met my eyes with an intensity that cut through a week of fog and raked me with the sharp nails of sobriety.
Like Sleeping Beauty after the kiss (only with less Beauty and more Sleeping), I snapped awake. I was already packing as Lauren disappeared through the front door, back on the road that led to happy, well-scrubbed people who were always smiling (without wrinkling at the eyes) and never, never referred to their depressions as "gorgeous."
Andrea and I left "Elfthorne," the uncannily bovine cashier/proprietor of Third Eye, a good deal richer. Andreas backseat was littered with books which explained how to overcome greed for material wealth while coincidentally becoming rich. I made some peremptory remarks to the effect that Elfthorne had become grossly overweight on health food, sensing the hilarious possibilities of this supposed irony if only mined correctly, but Andrea wasnt hearing it. She had recovered from her amusement over my previous clever remarks, and was nursing a full-on melancholy.
Andrea drives like someone who possesses the will to die, but lacks the nerve. This leads to fantastic speeds and only the most cavalier relationship with such concepts as Avoiding Oncoming Cars. The brisk June air made her talkatively dour (while taciturnly dour would have at least given me the opportunity to read), which I point to as contributing some impetus to my lack of enthusiasm for Andreas favorite topic:
"Andrea, listen the reason Star Trek is a fantasy isnt because it has spaceships and lasers and like that. Its because no one is playing politics; the problems are all external. Thats why Trek is so popular with social misfits because they all fantasize about a world where their lack of social deftness is irrelevant, seeing as people get along by magic. Lets face it, there are only two ways to get anyone to do anything payment or slavery. The future of Star Trek has no money, but somehow the toilets are kept clean. You do the math."
"This goes way beyond cultural criticism with you, Dina. Im hearing a personal vendetta here."
I held my silence for a moment, knowing curiosity would force Andrea to shift her attack from rhetorical to literal, and thereby in effect agree that she was yielding the floor.
"What do you have against Star Trek, anyway?"
"Andrea..." I began with the unmistakable air of someone preparing to launch into an emotional, premeditated and lengthy tirade. "Im glad you asked that question.
"One, despite the professed lack of gravity in space, the starships always seem to have arbitrarily chosen the same direction as up.
"Two, on a short jaunt from, say, Earth to Pluto, one can look out the window and see stars whizzing by.
"Three, whenever anyone on the program shoots a laser beam, we can actually see the laser beam leave the gun and travel to its intended target. The brilliant physicists behind the show seem foggy on the concept that lasers, being a form of light, travel at the speed of light.
"Four, when the camera is focused on the exterior of a starship, we can hear the muffled roar of the engine. Theres no air in space. Ergo, no sound.
"And five..." (I took a deep breath at this point, allegedly due to having exceeded the capacity of my lungs but in fact slavishly imitating a technique of Laurens she calls "gathering silence") "...Kirk kisses green women. He kisses robot women. He kisses blobs of Jell-o disguised as women. But he kisses an African-American woman once, and they pull the show!!"
Andrea was too stunned, almost, to steer. For a terrible minute I thought I had gone too far with the "gathering silence" trick, but then she stirred and spoke:
"The engine roar is just for effect."
There are women of my acquaintance who are hurt not only by criticism of them, but by criticism of anything even vaguely related to them. Women for whom every conversation is a potential opportunity to have hurt feelings, easily converted into Martyr Points which may be spent like currency on conciliatory favors, chocolates, what-have-you.
These women are amateurs.
Andreas lower lip started trembling as she dug a fresh pack of clove cigarettes from her teddybear purse. "..really good show...," she murmured vaguely. I felt a chill run down my spine as I realized the storm was about to break.
We were over an hour from Buffalo Creek, with an itinerary still bloated with errands, and I had just insulted Andreas absolute favorite television program in the history of the world. I was in for 4+ hours of full-on, Olympic-level martyrdom. There was only one possible escape, only one thing which could distract Andrea from embracing an opportunity to play the victim, and the antidote was almost as terrible as the affliction:
"But enough about my opinions," I said, suppressing a shudder. "Lets talk about you."
Andrea has the amazing ability to squeeze five minutes worth of information into a four-hour monologue. I spent the remainder of the morning hearing four facts about Corey, stretched out and re-stated and shoe-horned into whatever topic I heroically attempted to salvage the conversation with: (a) Corey was a dreamboat, (b) Corey had a Volkswagen Beetle, (c) Andrea liked Beetles, and (d) Andrea liked Corey.
Andrea ends most of her sentences with an "uh..." noise, thus indicating that although she has no idea what shes going to say next, shes not yet willing to yield the floor. At one point I brought up Chaucer, to which Andrea responded, "Speaking of Chaucer, Corey has a Beetle." Any pretense of continuity was gone: I was trapped in my own very personal Hell.
"Have you ever read Sartres No Exit?" I asked, by way of amusing myself, and with no hope that Andrea would have the faintest clue what I was alluding to. "Oh, yeah, I saw that!!" Andrea said with genuine enthusiasm, granting me the barest glimmer of hope. "That reminds me did I mention what a dreamboat Corey is?"
"Will you shut up about Corey!?! I dont goddamn care about Corey goddamn Bancroft, and if you dont shut up Im going to ram the steering column down your windpipe and kill us both!!"
This was new. Andrea stopped chattering mid-sentence, stared ahead at the road.
After a few minutes of silence, a small noise crept out of her. I could barely discern the words. "That was mean."
A sudden intuition told me I had been granted a window of opportunity if I said something in the nihilistic, pretentious vein of Corey without directly alluding to him, and if my tone was conciliatory enough and absolutely dripping with camaraderie, I might escape a lot of weight for one sentence to support, especially one sentence conceived in the spur of the moment. But after all, I was Laurens best friend:
"I made up a really great T.S. Eliot joke."
"Really." Andrea was reluctant to pursue a non-Corey/non-martyr train of thought, but also subtly intrigued. "I dont know that Ive ever really associated T.S. Eliot with a great deal of mirth."
"I know, thats why it works. Just listen: T.S. Eliot and Bertrand Russell are in a bar, right? The conversation is a bit scarce. Once in a great while one of them will make a low murmuring noise that the waitress is able to parse as a drink order. But otherwise they smoke and drink in silence, staring out at a gray sky and generally brooding. And then..." I was struggling with limited success to suppress a giggle, "...and then out of the blue, Eliot says you know, I had a feeling once. And Russell says Really? What was it? To which Eliot replies Ennui."
Andrea smiled and looked at me with genuine affection. "Thats a really good joke, Dina. I mean it."
"No, really. I wish I could think of one other person in Buffalo Creek other than Lauren who would get it, because Id tell it to them."
For some reason, this depressed me. I became sullen for the rest of the car trip, which, owing to the truism that Misery loves company, cheered Andrea up considerably.
By the time we got to Loquacious Porridge, she was belting out show tunes.
It wasnt until we stopped for lunch at one of those faceless, perpetually half-full fast-food places that Andrea pulled on her beloved and awful "trapped in the 80s" denim jacket, which was lent a certain barnacles-on-the-underside-of-a-ship quality by a peppering of buttons bearing allegedly clever slogans. One particularly prominent maxim was "Fuck the Real World, Im an Artist," which gives you some idea of the level of literary quality Andrea looked for when selecting these little gems. Im afraid my eyes went a little wider than is generally recommended as I noticed a new and unfamiliar button on the lapel, which had been worked into the button-montage with an instinct for color and design that presaged Andreas future assistant editorship for an ostensible womens magazine in fact targeted at twelve-year-olds. I knew at once that it was not of Andreas personal selection, as it didnt contain any of the shock-value terms "fuck," "shit," or "blow job." Also, it was in Hiragana, and Andreas fascination with all things Eastern had blown over fairly quickly once she realized that Eastern philosophies, as a rule, frown on excess.
Andrea noticed my amazement, glanced at the pin and back to me. "Its Japanese," she said conspiratorially. "Isnt it great?"
I narrowed my eyes, tried to speak evenly. "Where did it come from?"
Andrea looked more smug than anyone Im preparing to intellectually destroy has any reasonable right to look. "Lets just say it was a gift from Corey."
I could feel my lip curling up into my trademark sneer. I realize that it sounds as if Im romanticizing this to some degree, á la Elvis or at least Billy Idol. But believe me, Id be much happier and better off if were I able to hide my contempt for the average person as well as Lauren. "Good breeding," she would quote Mark Twain, "Consists of concealing how highly you think of yourself and how little you think of others."
"From Corey?" I asked Andrea with perhaps a slightly less sympathetic cadence than intended. "Did he actually give it to you personally?"
Andrea shifted her weight from buttock A to buttock B, which if one accords Laurens infallible theory any merit was tantamount to admitting that I was onto something. "What do you mean?" she asked in her best innocent bunny voice.
Its funny how some people think theyre insulated from revealing anything important if they answer questions only with other questions. I was reminded of a joke: "Q. Why dont you ever give me a straight answer? A. Why do you ask?"
"I mean did you actually see this leave Coreys fingers? Personally?"
"Lets just say someone in the Bancroft household gave it to me."
"In other words, Lauren," I mused aloud, not really expecting any useful feedback from Andrea. Andrea was kind enough to blush, however, which indicated a correct guess on my part. "Lauren gave it to you, but said something which implied that the pin originated from Corey. Isnt that right?"
Andrea stared mutely into space in what I imagine she thinks is an unassailable poker face but which in fact means, "Shit!! The jig is up!!"
"But how exactly did she imply it...?" I tapped my chin with a pencil, stared up at the ceiling as if Laurens words might be written up there. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Andrea had broken into a cold sweat.
"Obviously Coreys name had to have been invoked, so Ill bet she was talking about him with an air of grudging admiration. The only vaguely interesting thing Corey has ever done is spend a semester in Europe, so its a good bet that Lauren said something complimentary to the effect that Corey has cosmopolitan tastes. Also, that would merit a segue to the pin under the tenuous umbrella of internationality. How am I doing so far?"
Andrea glared at me like a pit bull, inspiring a fresh clutch of mixed emotions on my part. Because while it is no picnic getting the pit bull stare, Andrea would have gloatingly corrected me if I wasnt shooting with 100% accuracy.
"So a sudden change of gears from the Corey topic to the mysterious gift (a pin written in a foreign language) and some vague allusion to a secret admirer. Oh, and I happen to know that Corey was conveniently away at a sci-fi convention this morning. Ill bet the hypothetical conversation took place at Casa de Bancroft, and Lauren refused to divulge the identity of the secret admirer, but did manage a glance at Coreys room. Were there any details I left out?
I waved my hand over Andreas blank stare. "Sweetheart? Is there anything I...?"
"How do you know all that!?!?!" Suddenly the air was full of sandwich, and Andrea was screaming louder than Id ever heard her (which is saying something). She swept the remainder of our lunch off the table with one arm, sending it careening through the air like a flock of pigeons after you tear through them with your bicycle, to fall miraculously on almost everyone present. She then quickly degenerated into incoherence, a long string of mish-mash which contained expressions like "know-it-all, smartass bitch," "think youre better than everyone else," and "how dare you play god," each of which she punctuated by bringing her fist down on the table like a judges gavel. Just when I thought she was quieting down, Andrea instead escalated, jumping to her feet and flipping the table over (she must have been an absolutely world-class tantrum-thrower as a child). It was really quite spectacular. The other patrons started filing out in a manner reminiscent of high school fire drills, making me wistfully curse forgetting the camera. Andrea took advantage of the sudden vacancy by overturning the other tables as well, apparently with an eye to dispersing the fast food theron as widely and messily as possible.
Finally, the maelstrom wore itself down to a squall, and Andrea slumped back into her chair. She and I were the only two things left upright in the entire cafeteria.
There was a moment of silence. When I say "silence" I mean the rare and wonderful variety that follows some cataclysmic natural disaster, such as an earthquake, which is so deep and profound it makes you question your previous use of the word.
A few heartbeats passed before I reached out tentatively, took her hand in mine.
"Andrea, honey, do you know what the pin says? In English?"
Andrea stared straight ahead. She declined to answer. But she didnt push my hand away, either.
"No, of course not. Lauren didnt tell you, did she? She implied that she didnt know."
More blank staring. Impossible at his point to know if this meant I was right or if she was too far gone to answer.
"The pin means Im an idiot," I said as gently as possible. "Lauren had them made up for a bet."
"Shes the secret admirer."
Andreas nostrils flared twice. After perhaps a minute she spoke: "I dont know why you dont want us to be happy, Dina. I love Corey, and were going to be together, and were going to be happy. Why cant you just accept that?"
"Lauren is helping us. Which is more than youve ever done." Andrea dropped the Saturday Matinee Monster Movie Vacant Stare for a moment to look properly accusatory, meeting my eyes and frowning angrily. "Youve never cared about anyone but yourself!!"
I took the lapel of Andreas jacket in my hand, not roughly, and held it up to her eyes. "But Andrea... the pin says Im an idiot. Youre wearing a pin that says Im an idiot, and Lauren gave it to you. Doesnt that bother you just a little bit?"
"You think youre so goddamn smart, dont you, Dina?"
Pride has always been my downfall. I dont think Im overdramatizing in tracing the advent of our months-long war of attrition to my next comment, which in hindsight may have been less than clever on my part.
"I am so goddamn smart."
A film slid over Andreas eyes, like the milky inner eyelid of a cat. Or perhaps I imagined that part. Anyway, I remember her voice as being the low, husky growl endeavored by 40s film stars as she said, "Fuck you, Dina Gallagher," enunciating every syllable slowly and distinctly.
I had the sensation of the synapses between my neurons bursting into flame, like 10-ohm resistors looking down a 500-amp barrel. The next few seconds were in bionic, Steve Austin slow-motion. Mechanically I stood up, kicking the chair back and over. chi chi chi chi. As I rose, I leaned a full 30° to the left. chi chi chi chi chi.
Some dark, long-forgotten but ultimately dominant part of my brain had noted that Andreas tantrum had left not a shred of furniture upright, and the walls were a vertiginous white.
Andrea glared up at me venomously for a minute before she stood up as well. More bionics. She came up at exactly a 30° angle to the ground, tottered for a moment, and then fell over completely.
It was four hours waiting in the Madison bus station, and another hour home. But at least I won the goddamn smart contest.
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