Brian's breath wafted out in white as he waited in the lamplight for the next train. The wonderful folks at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Association had synchronized their schedule so perfectly that as soon as Brian stepped off the bus, his train began to pull out of the station. After simultaneously vowing revenge on SEPTA and realizing the futility of such an endeavor, he let his bag slide off his shoulder onto the ground and leaned against the brick wall of the station. He pulled out a paperback novel about an island off the coast of South Carolina, hoping it would take him to a locale warmer than Norristown in a crisp October that felt more like November than it should have.
Unease began to invade the world of Pat Conroy's southern exploits as Brian started to wonder if the train which had passed him by was in fact the last train of the evening. Just as he began dismally contemplating his prospects of finding a cheap hotel in the vicinity of the station, other people began to filter onto the platform. These were people whose lives were synchronous with the train; they didn't rely on arbitrary times on a printed schedule to tell them when to show up. When the business of the day was through, they seemed to feel the anticipation in the air when the train was about to light up the silence with its presence.
Brian, however, was an interloper. He didn't fit into the rhythm of the night, nor did he know when the train was about to arrive. He was quietly being groomed for a white-collar life, and little as he may have realized it, waiting for trains was to be a temporary inconvenience of a transitional time.
True to form, the train showed up at the station not long after its coterie of passengers did. Brian hefted his bag, climbed up the stairs, and took one of the numerous unoccupied seats as the train continued its brief glissade through the dark.
The car betrayed almost no sign that it was moving. Since night draped the windows, the train could have been floating somewhere in space. The conductor, however, marked its movement by intermittently yelling, “Wiss-ahickon!”, “Man-ayunk!”, or “Con-sho-hock-en!” Brian casually mused to himself that these were probably Indian names once – now, called out by the conductor, they just sounded like funny words.
The train reminded Brian that it was in fact earthbound as he heard “East Falls!” and the squeaky hiss of a slow halt. He put away his book, forgetting to memorize which page he was on, and unwedged his bag from the seat in front of him.
After Brian walked down the stairs and looked around the platform a bit, he felt a hearty slap on the back and turned around to see his friend Greg, wearing a baggy sweater and a big grin. They gave each other a manly embrace; more backslapping occurred.
Greg would be roomy and have a comfortable old couch and a hunting lodge fireplace in his front room, were he a house. People didn't mind being sucked into his orbit for a while – he created a temporary home for drifting satellites.
Once the requisite Hey mans and It's good to see you agains had taken place, Greg and Brian stopped talking and reflected for a moment as they walked up the hill toward their destination. Several scattered lampposts created bubbles of brightness in the Philadelphia evening. Encountering each other in this new setting, away from the town in which they had grown up, gave the two friends pause as they evaluated each other as individuals, stripped of the context of place. No longer were they familiar elements of their hometown, like the old jungle gym at the park and Barry's Restaurant where Barry smiled and asked no questions if they came in for breakfast at 10:00 on a school day. Brian was just visiting, and Greg hadn't lived in Philadelphia long enough for his roots to anchor him to the soil of the city.
Most people have never heard of Philadelphia University, as it tends to get swallowed up by the likes of Drexel, Temple, and U. Penn in the college town for which it is named. Greg, most of his friends, and a fair amount of the freshman class were architecture majors there. While Brian sat in classrooms memorizing foreign verb forms and ruminating on abstract philosophies, the architecture kids spent their hours in design studios wearing safety goggles, drawing things, sculpting things, creating things, building things. Greg told Brian that a girl from last year's freshman class built a lamp out of a glass tube, mirrors, and those shiny purple rocks. Its effulgence permeated a room, its light reflected in myriad directions. But after the lamp was turned on for two minutes, the glue would melt and the rocks would start to fall off.
Brian and Greg began trekking up the last of the hill, which had grown surprisingly steep. Just over the ridge of the hill's apex was Greg's dormitory, aglow with the activity of college kids on a Friday night.
Once they had checked in with security, Brian met Greg's friends. They were an agreeable sort, tough to put into a niche at a school with no football team and few fraternities. Shots were taken, drinks were mixed, jokes were made. Greg and Brian said their goodbyes, walked to the bus station, and boarded the bus to South Street.
South Street may be tawdry, but its meretricious allure is all its own. It is a place of incongruities, where Johnny Rockets and Condom Kingdom are a short walk up the street from the Theater of the Living Arts. Brian and Greg passed by kids A, B, and C from colleges X, Y, and Z as they ducked into various music stores in which you had to dig to find anything truly worthwhile.
Lacking their twenty-first years and any substantial amount of money, Brian and Greg reached the end of the street fairly quickly. Penn's Landing, with its battleships strung up with brightly colored Christmas bulbs, loomed before them. The two friends walked a little way up the dock to a rusty iron fence. The fence was filled with carvings like “Mike + Samantha Forever 12-02-99” and “Christine Loves Dave 3-22-98.” Full of shattered dreams and broken promises, Brian thought. He wondered if, out of the hundreds of carvings, a few had made it. Maybe “Alex Loves Jennifer 2-19-99” or “Jackie and Bill Forever” had a life together now. Who knows?
Suddenly, Brian looked up through the space-time continuum of the meta-textual void between author and character and glared at me.
“I know you're up there.”
Oh God. How embarrassing.
“Listen, this story is starting to get really fucking depressing.”
He's right you know. You begin to realize that you need to work on presenting a more authoritative demeanor when the characters that you've created start sassing you back (to borrow a phrase my mom was once fond of using).
“Man, before you know it you're going to be using words like cigarettes and vermouth and haze.”
That snarky bastard! I specifically set out not to include such words in my story, and here he goes spouting them. His skullduggery is screwing everything up!
“Alright, I'll admit that they work sometimes. Ernest Hemingway used them to great effect in some of his novels, but he was writing about World War I. You're writing about college life in Philadelphia. You have no right to use such postmodern balderdash. When was the last time you had to deal with trench foot or shelling or dying of asphyxiation from mustard gas?”
Okay, I have to breathe. Here we go. I'm taking a deep breath. I have to calm down, or I might end up rashly writing a horrible fate for this fellow, like getting hit by a bus, or – hey, let's go hog-wild here – getting eaten by a pterodactyl. After all, I was really into dinosaurs when I was a kid… No! I need to finish the story as I intended, and besides, I'm kind of proud of him. He's got some spunk, standing up to me like that. Oh, to any English professors reading this, I know that Ernest Hemingway was a modernist, not a postmodernist. But Brian doesn't know that – he's only a freshman. He's still in 200W and hasn't gotten to Hemingway yet, so you'll have to cut him some slack.
Greg, his elbows resting on one of the dock posts, continued to gaze out into the harbor and said, “You know Brian, when I get older, I'm gonna build you a house.”
They both thought for a minute – Brian, in a rare moment of common sense, decided not to ruin the moment with a lame “Thanks” or “That sounds cool.”
Capitalizing on the silence, Greg grinned, and his eyes lit up from the light bulb clicking on in his head. “When you get older, you can… you can conjugate me a verb!” Brian could only pretend to be offended for a few seconds before a smile spread across his face and the laughter which he had been holding in escaped from his chest.
As Brian and Greg turned away from the dock toward the lights of South Street, the shadow of a strange shape soared past the moon, wheeled over the water, and ascended back into the grey clouds whence it came.
Brian and Greg caught the last bus back to campus at 10:00 – Philadelphia turns in early. “The city that never sleeps” it is not. Having failed to get into a bar on South Street, they wandered the halls of Greg's dorm, asking passersby if they knew where they could buy any alcohol. They finally ran into Chuck, a friend-of-a-friend of Greg's. He opened his fridge and took out a big plastic jug, about two thirds full. “Vladimir,” it said.
“I paid twelve bucks for it, I'll give it to you for five.”
“Done,” Brian said, handing Chuck a five-dollar bill. “Thanks man.”
“No problem. Just don't drink too much of it. I had like eleven shots the other night and I was puking for hours.”
Not exactly the crème de la crème, but it was something. “We're not going to drink it straight, we're gonna mix it with stuff,” Greg said.
“Oh, okay. You got nothing to worry about then.”
People floated in and out of Greg's room as Brian and Greg mixed fruit punch and vodka and watched some movie or other. “Vladimir,” Brian said, “Sounds Russian. How bad can it be?” He took a gulp, and his face contorted as if he were gasping for air after being submerged underwater. Greg slapped him on the back, laughing, and said, “Dude, I think that was made in an oil refinery in Camden or something, not Russia.”
They laughed and stirred and mixed and drank. The liquor lurched through Brian's veins like a runner with a torn ligament. Brian felt a bit buzzed, his eyes got heavy, and the thought that he should probably take his contacts out flitted across his mind just before his head touched the floor and his eyelids enveloped him in darkness.
The room's dim light started out as a fuzzy pinpoint in Brian's vision and spread outward as his eyes slowly opened. He was groggy, his head hurt a little bit, and his contacts were stuck to his eyeballs. His head turned first to Greg, who slept slumped over on the carpet with the slightest bit of drool hanging from the corner of his open mouth. Greg's dreams were peaceful and pleasant, if he dreamt at all.
Brian's eyes rested on the glowing red numbers of the clock. 3:38. Water, he thought, would be good. He rose to his feet, stepped over Greg, and gingerly opened the door.
As he walked down the hallway, he heard the footsteps of someone else. Two slender swoops of dark hair framed a face that Brian remembered meeting before he and Greg left for South Street. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” said Brian, yawning. “…What are you doing up this late?”
“Drafting for a project I've got due tomorrow. I've been working on it all day, but I'm still going to be up until God knows when.”
“Yeah, I know what that's all about.”
“Wait, didn't you say earlier that your school doesn't have architecture?”
Smiling wryly, she said, “So by ‘I know what that's all about,' you really mean, ‘I have no idea.'”
“Well, I have a lot of work too…”
“Really?” she said, eyebrow slightly raised. “What exactly do you do?”
“Hmm… well, I read a lot, I guess.”
Brian had lost this one, and they both knew it.
After pausing for a moment to let that sink in, she said, “So I forgot to ask, what are you doing up this late?”
“Eh, I'm not feeling so hot. I'm getting some water from the bathroom.”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“Philadelphia tap water will kill you. Come on.”
She strode a little way down the hall, opened the door to her room, and sat down at her desk.
Brian sat on the bed. “It's Sarah, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, as she poured a glass of water and handed it to him.
Sarah looked at her desk, cluttered with straightedges, compasses, and huge gray-white sheets of graph paper curled up at the edges. She gave an audible, shrug-shouldered sigh. “I'm never going to get all this shit done.”
“Sure you will.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Naïve optimism. It's always worked for me!” said Brian, with a droll grin.
A half-smirk crossed Sarah's face. “I think I need a drink.”
Brian, who was closer to the refrigerator, said, “I'll make it for you. What do you want?”
“Whatever's in there.”
Brian opened the fridge to find a quarter of a bottle of rum and a bottle of generic cola. “Rum and coke it is then,” he said.
He made the drink and handed it to her in a big red cup. She took a sip and said, “You could've made it a bit stronger. It's good though.”
“Good. You mind if I have one?”
“Sure, go for it.”
Sarah looked at the carpet and stirred her drink as Brian drank his. When she looked back up, Brian seemed to be staring into space.
“Yoo-hoo. Brian, you still with us?”
Snapping out of his reverie, he said, “What? Oh, uh, yeah.”
“Come on, seriously.”
“Eh, it's stupid.”
“Well, I already assumed that.”
Brian smiled for a moment, then said, “It's just… I don't know. I was reminiscing, I guess.”
“Old friends from high school, ex-girlfriends, my grandma who died a few years ago – you know, people I was really close to. I mean, yeah, it was sad having to leave people behind, but I just moved on. And here I am. It's like my memories are irrelevant, you know?”
“I just feel like the past has a tendency to slip away from me. Memories from childhood, old friends, whatever. Sometimes I feel like I just use them up and continue on my merry way.”
“That's a rather depressing way of looking at it. But I can kind of see what you mean.”
“Yeah… I don't know. Maybe you can only know that you love people when they're fat and bald and their teeth have fallen out… and you can't go out partying with them because their livers don't work so well anymore.” They both smiled, their eyes downcast, a little too lost in thought to laugh.
A blustery fall day began to slowly fill Brian's mind like sand trickling into an hourglass. He saw himself, with gray hair and wrinkled, pallid skin, sitting in a sky blue wooden rocking chair on a paint-chipped porch. A whistling breeze sent leaves careering past the small isolated brick house to which the porch belonged. Brian sat next to an equally gray old man in a wicker chair, not because he needed his company, not because he was beautiful, but because he simply wanted to watch the leaves blow by with him.
Suddenly, much to my consternation, the veil between author and character was lifted once again, and Sarah looked up at me haughtily, disdainfully, hands on her hips and glaring coals in her eyes.
“I've got some words for you, bucko.”
Oh no. Not this again.
“Your story's getting rather maudlin, don't you think? Are you sure you haven't had one too many rum and cokes?”
“Also, I don't think it's quite fair that you didn't even make me a character. I'm just a foil for Brian, a sounding board for his insecurities.”
Goddamn it, she's got a point.
“You're also being quite the male chauvinist, making it seem like women are responsible for fixing all of your problems. ‘You complete me.' Hmmph. Very Jerry Maguire of you.”
“That's just not how it works in real life. Other people come with problems of their own. Still, I wouldn't mind getting to know some… provided that you actually fleshed me out and turned me into a real character.”
“The protagonist has to make real connections with real people. Otherwise, there's no point to the story.”
She's right you know.
Jon Gagas is doomed to become a professional student (he's not very good at much else). Sometimes he gets bored and writes things. If his writing were a woman, it would be young, nubile, and probably on one of those “barely legal” porn sites. You can e-mail Jon at email@example.com.