The four of us sit cross-legged on the burnt orange shag rug, and Neil takes a baggie out of his army jacket. I watch as he places a small white paper on the Formica coffee table and carefully shakes crumbled green leaves into a line in the middle. He licks the edges of the paper, rolls it into the shape of a cigarette and twists the tips. Barney pulls a lighter from his pocket. Neil inhales, holds it, and passes me the first joint I’ve ever seen. I follow Neil’s example and take a puff. The joint circles the four of us until Barney says, “Hey, Neil, got a roach clip?”
Neil pulls what looks like one of my Dad’s alligator tie clasps from his breast pocket and pinches the tiny nub with its teeth, so he and Barney can finish the roach without burning their fingers.
That’s when Barney and Lizzie walk to the bedroom end of the ranch house and disappear. Neil walks me to a room containing a maple bed with a cannonball headboard. He lies down and pats the beige spread for me to join him. I lie down beside him, not sure what else to do. We must be in Barney’s older brother’s room because a S.U.N.Y. Binghamton sticker is trying to hide a hole someone punched in the back of the hollow core door. Neil leans in like he wants to kiss me. Sorry, bushy red hair and granny glasses aren’t my picture of prince charming.
I turn to look out the window behind me. “Oh, look at the squirrels running around the bird feeder.”
Neil snuggles into the back of my neck. I face him. “You know, suddenly I’m really hungry. I could eat something, anything, a lot of it!”
Neil gets off the bed like I’ve done something wrong. I follow him into the kitchen. I can’t believe I can’t wait to go back to school.
Next time Lizzie, Barney and I skip, it’s at Neil’s house. We enter through the kitchen. On our way to the family room, I notice a book on the counter, “Oh, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass.”
Neil looks at me like he’s discovered a pot of gold. “Have you read it?”
“Yeah.” I neglect to mention the fact that I never finished it. The magic realism mentioned on the back cover made no sense to me.
We walk into the family room, and I settle in a modern swivel chair beside a large picture window. Barney and Lizzie sit on the couch. Neil stands in the center of the oriental carpet and pulls four capsules out of his breast pocket. “Wanna try some mescaline?”
I don’t know why I swallow it before asking, “What’s it supposed to do?”
Neil sits on the glass coffee table. “It’s like tripping on LSD.”
I spin in my chair. “Have you ever tripped?”
Neil doesn’t answer. Lizzie shakes her head. Barney says, “Well, I guess we’re gonna find out.”
Nothing seems to happen for a while, so Neil shows me his dad’s attached greenhouse filled with plants that look like spikey pineapple tops gone wild. In the very back is a crown of thorns plant with piercing spines and tiny flowers that look like throbbing blobs of blood.
When we re-enter the family room, I kneel on the rug. “Wow, I never really saw this before. It’s gorgeous! Lizzie, look at these patterns!”
Neil goes to the window. “Let’s go outside.” We follow him out the kitchen door.
The sky is the thrilling blue of October. I inhale the frosty air. My warm breath hangs in the slanting sunlight. We move towards the woods at the end of the street. Yellow beech leaves drift past tree limbs that form a musical staff. I realize it’s the score to Dvorák’s New World Symphony. The concert in my head builds gently, and crescendos in a stream flooding our path. Tufts of emerald moss grip the rocks in the middle of the trail like miniature islands. The forest floor becomes an undulating tapestry of oak leaves, red maples, lumpy acorns, wintergreen berries, scrolls of birch bark, rotting stumps ruffled with mushrooms. Broken twigs and downed branches hold everything in perfect interlocking geometry.
My palms fly to my cheeks. “This is so BEAUTIFUL!” I can’t keep it to myself, even though I forget who I’m talking to. A man turns in front of me. I know it’s Neil, but he looks like my mother. Why didn’t I notice this before?
He lifts his wrist and points to a glassy round thing. I can’t think what it’s called. Oh, clock, for measuring time. What an odd concept.
I put my hand on Neil’s shoulder. “Death created time. Without death we would always be. Nothing to chop into linear chunks. We’d never get old. Maybe there would be no seasons. Everything in full bloom forever!” I can’t tell if these words are coming out of my mouth.
Neil points me in the opposite direction. I run to Lizzie and put my head on her shoulder. She puts her arm around me.
When we get back to Neil’s kitchen, Barney opens the refrigerator and hands each of us an apple. “Anybody hungry?”
We sit at the table. “Putting something in your body to keep it alive. Another bizarre idea.” I’m pretty sure I said that.
Barney’s mouth opens, “You can change your shape by putting in too much or too little. That’s bizarre too.”
I bite through the shiny red skin, but the flesh tastes like Styrofoam. I place the bitten fruit on the table.
Behind me is the book I saw when I first walked in, The Tin Drum. I only got as far as WWII, Poland, and a dwarf in a potato field. I look at Lizzie, so glad she moved back from Kent, Ohio where they shot those students protesting the war in Viet Nam. How do these things happen in such an exquisite, geometric universe? I know I’m not thinking right.
Neil points again to that thing on his wrist. Oh, a watch because it watches how much life you have left. My eyes focus on the tiny hands pointing to a twelve and a five. Neil’s eyebrows go up, and he herds us out the kitchen door. Lizzie, Barney and I head home in different directions.
I leave Neil’s driveway knowing I lied about really reading that book. Why did I do that? To impress not Prince Charming? I never want to lie again. It hurt something in me that I can’t explain right now. And I never want to trip again. In any fraction of my remaining time a facet of me could crack off the perfect pattern and shatter.
I walk in my own kitchen. I smell meatloaf, peas, and baked potatoes. My real mom is serving dinner. I sit beside my dad. My brother opposite. My eyes mist. How can I be normal, when I know my parents have prepared this table to keep me from dying?
Even if I couldn’t taste it at the time, that kaleidoscopic trip so long ago, when trees tops sang and flowers throbbed like globs of blood, took me deep into a problem even smart kids couldn’t solve –a flawless creation corrupted by sinful man.