By Indy Zoeller
A week ago, when Matt Granderson told me he was coming to Orcas with some people, he made it sound like Stephen Fincher had a cabin and maybe five or ten people were going. Just a few college friends getting together – a campfire, laughter, stories.
This is still my impression as I talk to Matt, Saturday afternoon. He’s off the ferry, talking to me distractedly, giving vague directions. He’s not from Orcas, he didn’t grow up here, so he doesn’t understand that a street name and house number mean nothing. Orcas is a place with no stoplights, no streetlights. “I need a landmark,” I tell him. He says he passed an information booth on the way from the ferry. “Like an information booth, but it’s only a wall. And it has this map on it?” I understand what he means – surprisingly. “That’s called the Map Corner,” I say.
I borrow my mom’s Miata and stain the white car with mud driving through the backroads of Orcas, following Matt’s directions. I’ve only been back on the island for a week, and still, everything is as it was. As I near where I think Stephen’s house is, I start to see signs planted along the side of the road. “Park Here,” they say. Or, “Don’t Park Here.” One of them has an arrow pointing off to a side road. “Additional Parking.” The arrow points to a field – a big one. I start to get the sense that Matt has unintentionally miscommunicated the scope and nature of this event.
I arrive. Two buildings on a gently sloping lawn, a white tent in the middle. Lights strung everywhere. A band is setting up on a stage under the tent. Through the trees, the slope drops off and I can see the ocean below. There are fifty people here, easy. This party, to borrow a phrase from R-Kelly, is catered. By people I know. One of the caterers waves at me – her name is Natalie; she’s always older than I think she is. She was my partner for the Fezziwig dance in A Christmas Carol, and she had some part in Alice in Wonderland that I can’t remember (I was the Cheshire Cat) and one time in high school she was very drunk in the back of a parked car during prom, and her friends were hovering and buzzing around like the only unproductive bees in the universe, and I cut through the crowd and pulled her out, because she wanted to get out and people should make their own choices.
Matt waves me over. “What the fuck is this?” I ask. It’s Stephen’s graduation party, says Matt. It’s also, I find out later, Stephen’s mom and dad’s 25th wedding anniversary. They live on Orcas full-time, which explains why I see my first grade teacher and my high school band teacher as I fill a red plastic cup with beer from a keg. People I know from Orcas are here, people I grew up with. Topher Winterborn and Jeremy P and Wet Pants Tim are here, people from my fraternity. Two worlds are colliding. Cameron Lawless tells me about his plans to teach jazz in Nepal as someone I pushed down a hill in kindergarten hands me a beer. There are kids running around – you always bring your kids to a party on Orcas, and they always have something to do, like a designated area – look, there’s a ping-pong table under some lights down by the lower house. It’s an Orcas party. Only … it’s not… quite… Somehow I know that after it’s dark that table will be used to play beer pong. I wish Aarika was here – she would understand how amazingly strange this feels, probably put it into new words, good words that showed me something. But she’s not here – she planned to come, but she’s sick, so Matt tells me.
“It’s fucking freezing out here,” I say. I’m wearing jeans and a button down shirt. I’m too used to Austin; living there for two years has made me weak when it comes to Pacific Northwest weather. When I decide to drive home and change, Matt comes with me. It’s only a 10-minute drive, but Matt manages to mention both Karl Marx and the idea that an interesting job would be a physicist who used physics to be a psychotherapist in the same trip. It’s an endearing trait, Matt’s eternal fascination with things and general exuberance. It’s something I admire even when I’m annoyed by it. “There’s a deer on your lawn,” says Matt as I pull up to my house. “There’s. A. Fucking. Deer. On. Your. Lawn.” “Yes,” I reply. Matt cannot get past this. He chides me for not appreciating my own home. I change into a sweater, my bomber jacket, and some black leather driving gloves. “How many hookers have you strangled recently?” asks Brett Lawless, Cameron’s brother, but that’s later, by the fire.
When we get back, it’s not quite dark. Matt imagines a trip to the beach, and makes it happen. Matt and I round up Jeremy P and Wet Pants Tim and a girl, some girl who goes to school in California, and we head down the trail. The girl probably knows Matt from somewhere. I listen to him ask her about herself, about the connections in her life that have brought her to this place, this day. What could it possibly matter? Maybe I could get to know her, and she’d be my friend, change from something new to something old. But if this party is teaching me anything so far, it’s that everything old is new again, and vice versa.
We can’t get to the beach; the tide is in. We stand on a ledge overlooking the ocean and smoke. “So THAT’s where Eastsound is,” asks Wet Pants Tim, pointing down the coast to the left. I nod. “And that’s Mt. Constitution,” says Matt in the same tone, pointing straight ahead. I nod again. Close enough. I pass the girl the piece. “What’s your name?” I ask. “I figure I should know now that we’re putting our mouths on the same thing.” I may have said something slightly different, but equally as awkward. As I write this, I could not tell you her name if you offered me a thousand dollars.
It’s dark now, and the walk back up the path takes longer. Matt gets us lost at least once and we scramble over rocks and trees. The band has started playing and we can always follow the music to get where we’re going. This seems deeply significant, and at the same time a complete artifact of the drugs.
I’m feeling loose, hitting that sweet spot, just drunk enough, just high enough to smile at pretty much everything, in a hopefully non-creepy, non cliché hippie way. We’re back at the party. Topher Winterborn, who once convinced a hundred people to ride imaginary horses all around Ankeny field one cold college night as epic music blasted through rented speakers, is talking to my high school biology teacher. This can’t possibly be happening. The band captures my attention. Mark London, Jim Farley, Atton Pages – I know these people. I know them through many threads, but my college friends only know them as The Orcas Horns. They play “Superstition.” There are lots of saxes and trumpets and some Whitman folks start dancing. Cameron Lawless jumps in the middle and twitches spasmodically, that singular grin on his face that shields him from everything you’re afraid of when you dance, because no one could take Cameron less seriously than Cameron takes himself.
I stand just outside the tent. “Indy?” calls a voice, and I’m hugging Kayla Blake, all five feet of her. She’s not short, not quite, but certainly not average even for a girl, and with her curves and oval face, dark hair, skin the kind of light brown that makes you afraid to guess her ethnicity even with a gun to your head, she’s always seemed to me the person who looks least like what she does, which is run sound, oversee sessions at the recording studio, do tech for plays – and, since she’s only in her late twenties, babysit and work in a restaurant. She’s a tech rat, when she looks like she belongs on a beach in Polynesia. “How are you?” I ask, and we only have time for a few catching-up phrases, because the song ends. “Hang on, that’s me,” she says. She scampers up in front of the stage and Mark London hands her a microphone. I notice she’s wearing a black dress – who even knows how to describe a dress – fancy? – with a wide belt. The band launches into a slow, smoky jazz number. It’s “Fever,” and Kayla belts it out like a pro, like it was nothing. The crowd gets into it. Both Lawless brothers applaud after the second verse, and everyone has eyes forward, where before there were little dancing circles.
End of song. Wild cheers. She goes a little out of the tent to get water and the band starts another song. I walk up to her just as Natalie does, and Natalie and I say to each other, “I didn’t know she could do that,” and then turn to Kayla. “We didn’t know you could do that,” I say. Natalie is grinning. Kayla is modest, but not enough that it’s annoying. Now this happens – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I can’t remember how it happened, because there was no flow to this moment that I saw, no connecting piece – but Kayla takes my hand and says, “Come dance with me.”
Near the front of the dance floor, I take her hands and lead her into a few swing moves. It’s not a swing song, but it’s 4/4 time, so who cares? And the song… it’s Al Green. “Let’s Stay Together.” The horns play the melody. The beat is slow and slinky. I’m just the exact right combination of drunk and high that it’s easy – I spin her, once, twice, and then it’s a real dance, the close kind, and we’re looking at each other. Maybe looking away a little, sometimes, but mostly, looking at each other. The whole time. Smiling. This is fun. I look around, and all the Whitman people are back to dancing in groups, doing the circle thing. I catch Matt’s eye, and then Cameron’s eye, as I dance with Kayla. This is my Island, guys. For all you know, this is just what I do.
During the next song we dance apart, not touching, but near each other. It’s a funk song. My non-intoxicated mind starts shoving its stupid way forward, and because it’s a fine line, I analyze, and it’s just such a fine line. But wonder of wonders, I don’t think myself into any pitfalls and I’m just having fun. Kayla leans in – “Are you staying with your parents while you’re here?” I nod, mutely. What else is there to do? Fuck. I can’t believe how much I didn’t even consider this. Like flipping a switch. There might have been a more unintentionally emasculating thing she could have said, but I doubt it.
Jim Farley, the guitarist, ends the song and addresses the crowd. Stephen is graduating. His parents’ 25th anniversary. Jim reminds everyone why they’re there. Then he invites Stephen’s dad to the stage. Jim tells him to play something beautiful for his wife. Stephen’s dad plays the trumpet. Jim starts a slow, drawn-out version of “What A Wonderful World.” It’s slow, and very sensual. Stephen’s dad starts a trumpet solo. He’s not bad. The Whitman kids, sensing a moment, put hands around shoulders and start to sway as one. Kayla turns to me, and extends a hand, smiling, but with a little bow, almost shy. We dance in a slow circle. I’m very happy, grinning, and not really thinking or worrying about anything. I have to remember the combination – HAVE to. Four beers, and three hits? It might have been four hits.
Kayla and I are the only ones dancing. Everyone else is swaying, arms linked. This is fucking strange. But fun. I’m holding her, not close, not intimately, but not exactly platonically, either. Her head is against my chest, which is good, because if she were further away I feel like we’d be looking at each other, and I might not be able to handle it, because I wouldn’t look away either, and then whatever is going on would have to be, I don’t know, addressed.
She goes for water after the song ends. Natalie and another girl take her place, and we dance to another funk song. Cameron bumps into me; he’s invented a kind of dancing where he goes limp, and lets the girl he’s dancing with make his arms flail. After the song I find Kayla, and we catch up. We fill each other in on what’s happened since we spoke last. Now we’re starting to really talk, and someone interrupts – old guy, white hair, I know him, but I’m so bad with names. He wants to tell Kayla what a good singer she is. This transitions into him talking about music, and I’m just standing there, badly, so I leave. There’s a campfire, where Topher Winterborn holds court and berates people with the British aristocracy voice he used when he called out to passing students to join the imaginary horse riding. Matt sits next to me and wants to talk about Karl Marx again. It’s like watching an accident in slow motion, knowing you can’t do anything about it.
We attract a short guy with red hair who reminds me of a leprechaun but he has hipster glasses and a pea coat. He is a hipster. He knows way more about Karl Marx than Matt. The next fifteen minutes I have no willing memory of, but I did get dragged into some kind of argument. I’m a born contrarian, but I can’t rationally defend capitalism when I’m intoxicated. You can either have a discussion, a debate, where your terms are clear, or you can be in front of a campfire, is what I say.
Somewhere during that time, Matt leaves the fire. We’re not talking about what he was interested in. We’re not talking about what I’m interested in. The red-haired kid is talking about Karl Marx, and it can’t be interesting to him either. Presently I find the right combination of words and silence and he stops talking.
I find Matt down by the house, the lights by the ping-pong table now white and brilliant, the cups arrayed for beer pong. Wet Pants Tim and some kid versus Matt and some kid. I’m out of energy. I look around, but Kayla is gone, and the band is packing up. The party is drifting apart. Everyone is on the same page now, both my Whitman friends and my Orcas friends. I read people’s faces as they pass, watch them mingle and hope, disengage and attack, swirl and dive. There are no real adults, not really. Not at a party like this, maybe not ever.
Mark London is sitting on the stage, disassembling his sax. “I had a flask of whisky during the first set, and another flask during the second set,” he tells me, apropos of nothing. The tent is empty, and in the dark, the campfire is where the last stragglers of the party are gathered. “You be careful now,” says Atton Pages as Mark walks to his car. Atton half turns to me, but we certainly have nothing to talk about one on one, not starting from scratch.
There’s no one to say goodbye to. At the fire are Mitch Toboggan, Topher, Wet Pants Tim, the Lawless brothers, fucking Gordon Fletcher – no one I could say goodbye to, in other words. College friends still in college, locked away in another plane of existence. I look back to the ping-pong table but Matt is gone.
It’s absolutely dark as I walk back to the Miata. Mark passes me on the driveway as I walk, his old truck going slow and steady. After he passes me I jog behind the truck, using the red brake lights to find my way back. I flip open my phone and dial Matt. “I’m leaving,” I say, kind of rattling and between breaths as I jog. “You should stop doing that,” he says immediately. “We went back down to the beach to smoke.” The idea is ludicrous. I cast my vision ahead fifteen minutes, and in no way do I see myself doing that. “I’m going to leave,” I say.
The phone clicks shut and Mark’s truck is gone, and the Miata is a barely-visible white outline in the night. It’s obscene how dark it is. Inside the Miata, the engine purrs to life and the dashboard is backlit with red, the dials and gauges, too. I’m now in control of this machine. The sound of the engine is simple, and the feel of acceleration, and the tug of a hard curve, and the smoothness of the wheel.
Just before the dirt road spills out onto the main road, a deer casually jogs in front of the car. A doe. I’d already been slowing down for the stop sign, and I coast to a halt in front of the animal. It never stops moving, but it swings its head toward me, and the headlights catch its eyes, and they glow the way the eyes of an animal do in the night. It crosses the road, and its back leg hitches. It’s brown flecked with white, and where it’s not those colors, it’s dark – dark in one spot. The lights catch it the right way, and I can see the blood.
“You’ve had a night,” I whisper to the deer, not really whispering, just speaking low, and now the doe is past the car, and now she’s gone, and I swing the car onto the main road.
Copyright Zoeller 2012