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  • (Preface.)

    (Forgive me, new readers.) I am so sorry for being absent! I have been writing my dissertation. I will be a doctor in a week. I miss your writing: Peter, Leilani, Susan, Barbara, Eirik, Annie, Kelly, Andrea, johnnie, Katie, Shane, Eli...I hear your words echoing, even though I haven't read anything lately. I have been remiss. Forgive me, old readers.

    (Ten years ago.)

    She had been calling me all summer. Cell phones were not completely new then, but they were still expensive, and new to me. I had a little phone with stubborn, stubbled buttons. I was on a family plan; nobody could imagine who I'd need to reach for more than a few minutes. I hadn't been in love with her for three years at least; no, that's wrong, it must have been at least six. She is still beautiful, and I'd be willing to bet that she still drinks too much wine. She wore her hair like a veil. She had big teeth and full lips. She would play bad Joni Mitchell albums, and I would try to make sense of them, with nothing to go on but my parents and their awful Judy Collins LPs. (Scratched, too.) I knew nothing about music. I remember her saying to me that I would get tired of Simon & Garfunkel. I'd only been listening to them for two weeks when she said that.

    "I don't even know if he likes me now. I sleep with him but I don't know if he thinks I'm ugly," she said, into the phone, her words drying on the lines of her long breaths. "I don't know if he thinks I'm stupid," she added.

    She wrote exactly one story that summer, and it was about a plant. I don't remember the story very well, but we were reading a ton of Lorrie Moore, and I'm pretty sure the plant was sad. She lived in Berkeley. Back then I lived in Sacramento; I'm in Sacramento again now.

    I was basically a virgin. I'd actually lost my virginity a ton of years earlier, but on one of those accidental nights, the way you'd lose a backpack or a pair of glasses. I'd also drunk a "gin and tonic" that night without a clear sense of what a gin or tonic was. So when I tried to picture her sleeping with him in such melancholy circumstances, it seemed vague and awful, like two pieces of broken paper folding up and hiding together. Of course his roommate was jealous! I was jealous, and I wasn't even there. She explained the roommate's silences, and how strange it was to fuck one wall away from him. "Does he understand you?" I asked. The boyfriend, not the roommate. Our own awkward periods saying nothing, across our tenuous cellphone connection, piled up like dander.

    A single month talking about the difficulties, on that pimpled cellphone, cost me $300. At the time it was a fortune, and maybe it would still feel like a fortune now. I forget how it got paid. I think about half of it was paid in yelling, and the other half came out of some savings account that had previously had a sort of holiness. That three hundred bucks: I never spoke to her again for another six years. I can barely speak to her now. At one point she slept with the roommate, which, I'm sure you agree, was absurd. Here I finally think that she and that guy have a future, and then, what does she do? She sleeps with the other guy. I didn't trust him. She told me he was into weird things. He sounded weird: bad skin, bad habits. He showed up sinister to breakfasts.

    In high school, I'd written her a love letter. She took it to her mother and asked for advice; her mother advised her to pretend it had never happened. "What did you think of my letter?" I asked her, for three days. "Did you like my letter?" I forget what happened on the fourth day, because it was something really banal, and after that I lost my nerve.

    By the way, I met them. It was the last time I visited that summer. The $300 hadn't hit yet. Their apartment was gigantic. At the time, I didn't know the first thing about what high-grade marijuana can do to an apartment. Four televisions, stacked 2x2. There was a button that controlled whether you would see one composite image, or four duplicates. I remember them as all being fake wood, but that's probably an embellishment. They weren't fancy televisions.

    At this point, I was already into Radiohead, and even still I couldn't believe how alphabetized everything was. The tiny shades of difference between Jackie Chan cassettes were all accounted for, and there was a sharp divide between DVDs and cassettes. I can say, sincerely, that they might have been assigned separate rooms. I know -- Jackie Chan, what a cliche, I must be kidding. Well, no, they were in deadly earnest. The roommate was actually the one who alphabetized everything, and the one who was sleeping with her, he just OK'd everything. It was one of those shameless hierarchies of cool. The roommate was in a 12-step program (alcohol, not pot). It fell to him.

    The foosball machine did not work. It was a prop in the solarium next to the Civil War re-enactment game. Picture some kind of fourth-grade diorama that gets cancer and metastasizes into a parlor game. It was brown and lumpy, baking-soda lumpy. It had small grey Toys-R-Us Confederate soldiers. It was not finished, and it never would be. You could already play all the way through to Shiloh.

    The roommate took me aside. "I hear you're a reader," he said. "Absolutely," I told him. "Well, do you read stuff about God?" "Yeah." "OK. Well. Guess what, I read stuff about Satan." He said it with a lot of enthusiasm. It was, "SATAN!" A word so huge the rest of the sentence withered away.

    "I have no idea what has been written about Satan," I told him.

    "Have you read Lawrence Durrell?"

    What a great guy! "I've been reading The Alexandria Quartet all summer. I've broken the spines. I'm going to finish Clea tomorrow and read it all over."

    "Did you know he was into Satanism?" (No, I didn't.) "Did you know that he wrote this book, called The Black Book, he had been reading Henry Miller and he had lice in this hotel in Egypt. That was his life until he met Aleister Crowley. That shit turned him around. He found a way to Satan and all this poetry just started crawling out of him. Another guy was there too, La Bas, you'll read it, you'll see. It's perfect, but Durrell had the talent. His words are like that, they crawl around inside my brain. Little lice poems. Hail the Dark Lord! I don't take it too seriously, you know, of course. This is Earth, my friend. But I do feel a darkness. I do feel a prickling under the sun." He had that bleached punk hair that makes white skin look pink. He had a heavy black jacket, looped with metal rings, and he suffered from it. He handed me his copy of The Lives of the Saints and I remember how gold and richly brown it was, how dark the leather. She was somewhere off with the other guy.

    "What did you think of Mountolive?"

    "I don't know about any of this. That's why it's good you're here, I want to read Mountolive. It sounds interesting. But nothing about Satan?"

    "No. The guy Balthazar -- Book 2 -- is into some kind of occult theory, but it's all very unclear."

    He gave me a look that was like the prize at a county fair. "Of course it's unclear. That's where you have to dig in to him. Sometimes he tries to escape, you know. Durrell tries to get away from us too."

    "Where's our friend?" I asked, picturing Durrell and the lice.

    "Which one? Both of them?"

    "Are they together? How it going for them? And OK, sorry man, but why are you getting involved? She's not this dark person at all. I've known her for a long time and that's not her."

    "I don't know what you mean," he answered.

    "Are they together right now? It's like, all I've been hearing about, this whole summer."

    "I think she likes him," he said, looking up into his corner, where he looked when he talked about faith and God and his movies. "I do. He's a weird guy, you know. He doesn't like anybody really. He's in a phase or something. Sometimes I think, whatever."

    "Whatever WHAT?" I said, practically yelling.

    "They've never gotten together, and it's ridiculous. It's wrong. He shouldn't lead her on, definitely," said the Satanist, scratching his snowy sideburns.

    I called her on it, of course, and she told me that I liked gossip too much, and she thought it would be funny to tell me some gossip when it wasn't even true. To see if I would be into it, and of course, wow, was I into it. I wouldn't speak to her. Even years later, I would get stoned, and alphabetize my collection of movies, and watch Gia, without caring in the least about that night she was with him, doing nothing, right in front of me, while I promised to send this guy my broken copies of The Alexandria Quartet. Which I didn't, but I think of him often, all the same.
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