Unless you counted the nights when Hans woke up screaming Thelicethelicethefuckinglice!, nothing eventful happened at the home until reasonably late in the season, since all you had to do was call out DUDE protect your eyes and Hans would roll over, a touch put-off, to face the molding wall. Yvon might have argued that his proposal for the implementation of an independent-study Marquis de Sade course was something to be noted, but we all knew that this was a shot in the dark, being that the raunchiest book taught in the last ten years remained the venerable Ramona and Beezus.
“Poor Laura,” Bird sighed when we saw Yvon float, slump-shouldered, out of his therapist’s office. “Always had dreams too big for the prairie.” And we all had to bite back our laughter.
We knew better than to talk “deep” at the house, for fear of being overheard by one of the wandering patrons. If Carol-Anne or Basil, fresh from the chatty new school of juvenile psychotherapy, caught wind of the fact that we talked of more than just stolen cars and bad k-hole, they’d squirrel us off to their offices to analyze our feelings and watch us draw nude family portraits faster than we could splutter, “Coke!” The dining-hall and rec room were heavily monitored, as was the barn where we checked off our long list of chores and the downstairs bathroom where we evaded them. I’d spent many happy hours locked in the loo, sometimes with matches I’d filched from the kitchen, and if I was lucky, a contraband fork. Razors were a laughable fantasy; me and Janey held contests as to whose pit-hair grew fastest. Once, in the beginning, I sent my sister a letter, begging her to send me a pack of disposables because I’d fallen for some bilingual pyro, but either she saw through my lie or was not quite as obliquely feminine as I’d had been hoping. Either way, all she sent were magazines and M&Ms and a hand-written postcard dripping with hearts. With the magazines flipped open on the floor and candies littering the sink, I whiled away the afternoons I was supposed to spend “reflecting” in the endless seas of corn. I sought repentance in the zits I popped. I spelled consequence along my upper thighs, loath was I to lose my steadiness of hand. I stared into a starlet’s eyes and held my breath until my face was as delicately blue. I plucked out my leg-hairs, one by one, with a pair of nylons crammed into my mouth, until noble Hans, the only one to ever reach the end of his list, pounded on the door, or Janey sauntered in and helped me mark in hot-pink Sharpie all the places where my scars had been and now, beneath god-fearing Midwest sunshine, had begun to fade.
I had to hand it to Basil and Co., they’d certainly made our lives simpler. We fed the pigs and wrote letters to the people we’d wronged. We ate prison-grade meals and watched G-rated movies on Fridays. Our sole responsibility was to reflect on our actions. We woke up early to stack hay, but we still stayed up late swapping stories, the only thing this place was really good for anyway. Janey and I would snuggle under the covers of her bed, which was bigger than everyone else’s due to her self-proclaimed scoliosis, while Hans and Bird sprawled at the foot and Yvon sat on the floor.
“What’s the worst thing that you ever did?” Janey was fond of asking us. My stories of intoxicated teenage angst always paled in comparison to, say, Bird’s brief affair with the Chilean student-teacher in Shakespeare’s Mystique. “There ain’t no one who can say I never took an advanced class,” he said, smirking in spite of himself. He was using pink nail polish to paint a penis in an Elizabethan ruff on Janey’s toenail. “The poor sap sincerely believed that Shakespeare was a chick.”
“I lied about my name once,” Yvon said, gently banging his head back and forth against the bedpost. “I spray-painted this mural of Andrew Jackson with a Mohawk on the side of the city-hall, and then tagged it with the name of my lab partner. I chickened out, and now that kid’s a legend.”
“That’s not what she meant!” Hans, Bird, and I shouted. Janey tossed a glow-in-the-dark stress-ball at Yvon’s head, but he dodged it with such indifferent grace that we loved him all over again.
In short, our days at the home were harmonious.
The courses were a joke and even Janey had straight A’s, so for the most part the patrons just left us alone. We knew the humble eye-opened answers to the therapist’s questions, the closets to get high in, and the quiet spots along the outskirts of the farm where we couldn’t be found if we’d had a shit day. By November, we knew all the tricks in the bag. Just like Janey said, everything went smoothly, provided we never lingered too long beneath a fogbank near midnight and waited, all alone, for the moon to slide out, varnished by haze, and smolder blindly above us, feeling our spindly legs stick out from loose sweaters and knowing, so simply, that this was what death was, the crackling mystery of why do we look so damn comely when no one can see us? And the key is to keep plowing forward, dragging feet through the leaves, ambling homeward with frosty ambition and musical innards, determined not to start thinking of that boy in girl’s blue jeans who burnt you CD’s or the soft-bellied mothers who grieve for the outlook he gave you, via curt burning kisses or Eastern traditions, no no, that’s no more, that’s the moon in the morning, don’t go scanning the sky for its effeminate ghost, you’ll only jack with your eyesight and space out on the favor you told Janey you’d do, that’s not cool, so forget it—the flat yellow landscape promised forgiveness so long as we kept mincing forward and never slowed down to swat at the backs of our necks where the hair grew ever sparser and the wind felt offended. No one was afraid of tornadoes at the home; we lay in bed and dreamed instead of all the shit we’d buy once rebirth revved up our corpses and with spit-wet thumb daubed at huge gashes. God would surely favor me, I thought, due to my singular collection of raised and brain-white skin. My body was Ash Wednesday, of the sunlit, dreary, drawn-out kind. My friends paced about its sitting-room in blonde depravity, counting down the minutes with a tacit stir betwixt too-small pajamas and immortalizing Thursday, when we could bathe and fuck, and the whirling lumen of the earth was crudely reinstalled. Good God! We were his quintessential grubby children.
Leave it to Bird to overturn this dynamic. Moody little shit that he was.
I remember the night we stole snifters of wine from the synagogue down the road and lay in the always-wet field of corn.
We were hidden from view and empowered by night. It had been a long day: three hours of corn-shucking followed by a seminar-cum-puppet-show on anger management concluded by what were called Redemption Stretches and the choice between introspective loom-time or vagina-themed group therapy. Hans belched to orient the stars more favorably above him and coerced us to sit in an Indian circle, knees touching knees in a thrilling mistake of weight shifted and guitar-heavy arms. It was Janey that began it all. She first plunged her hands down her shirt to adjust her bra (she was always doing something like that) and then proclaimed to the scattered, light-headed army in a voice at once cryptic and soothing as only a soprano can manage: "I wanna talk about, what are they called? I wanna talk about...dialectics. My brother sent me a pamphlet. Socrates, man. Philosophy."
No one there cared or knew much about dialectics, Janey included: we all knew she just wanted to talk about herself, and that was OK, because we all wanted the excuse to talk about ourselves and our problems once the time came, as we all knew it would, as we felt rising up like a glug in our bellies. Janey proceeded and we submerged ourselves gladly in the surf of her speech, letting her words rock sore bodies and dissolve friendly ties. We stretched out on the dirt and drifted like vessels, listening as if accidentally to Janey's monologue and zealously snuggling into our own minds. Hans lay to my left, Bird to my right, Janey right across from me, and Yvon on his own some ten feet away.
"When I first came here, I think it was, well, three months ago, and let me tell you," she began, "I was a city slicker. Straight-up. I hated the corn and I hated the cold. I hated how flat everything was. I hated the sky which hung way too low. All I wanted was to hitch-hike back home—right away! It didn't matter to me that I had nowhere to go. I just wanted to be back where I knew what was up.”
We all hmmed and raised our limp wrists in agreement. “All the townies thought I was such an anomaly.” That was Bird, the surly bisexual. He rolled on his back and leered at the sky, black corduroys pin-striped with sweetgrass, clunky boots violating the cornstalks. “They were far too polite with me. Like at Farmer’s Market. They slipped extra strawberries into my bag. They thought I didn’t notice.”
“So what?” Janey swiped at his triangular legs though they supported the moon and a whole host of stars. “Free is free, my friend.”
Bird stared at her and didn’t breathe. “It means they were afraid of me.”
“Not me,” Hans piped up. “I never thought you were strange.” Hans had come from a small town to an even smaller one. He had thus been told all along that his big ideas were a burden. He had lots of other problems, Hans, but in tight moments he seemed most ashamed of his fanciful outlook, his outspoken dreams.
Bird blew him a kiss, extracted it straight from the depths of his scowl, which infected the gesture with unseemly tenderness. “Sorry to disappoint,” he crowed. “Still, people back home didn’t give a rat’s ass. It took a lot more to stand out. I know people who dedicated their lives to the task. They did horrible things to themselves. But look, I remember them now. I’m keeping them alive, bringing them back to the boonies. I guess that means it worked.”
Janey looked annoyed. “But I made peace with this place,” she continued. “I struck a chord. Maybe I don’t like the set-up, but I like the countryside. I like the isolation.”
“You like it?” I peered into her face, a beautiful arrogant rose-colored mug. “I mean, liking the country is one thing. But don’t you ever get lonely?” I pushed a hand through my hair and smacked Hans with my elbow. “I do.” My voice was soft and loose with wine. “I spend eighty-percent of my time thinking about all of the people who I used to know.”
Bird nodded. “Me too.” He paused. “But I don’t keep in touch with anyone. Sometimes I text my mom late at night and she responds with I Love You! every time.” He laughed. “What’s the point? I can just get Hans to tell me that.”
Hans let loose a bawdy laugh. Janey didn’t smile. I suddenly felt too vulnerable, spangled on the ground, and hurriedly sat up. “But isn’t she curious?” I asked. “Doesn’t she want to know what you’re up to? How your new life is going?”
Hans flung a rotted husk at me, chuckling, “Oh you. The golden child.”
Bird just shrugged. “She stopped caring about that a while ago. By the time I was twelve, it was clear that what I did on the weekends just couldn’t be explained to her. When she asked about my friends, I always used the same words to describe them, words which didn’t fit them, or anyone, at all. Fun. Bright. Nice. All she cares about now is if I eat right. So I send her a selfie and she’s satisfied. Bon appétit, mon fils!” This struck everyone as funny since Bird was famously slender and maintained a diet of cornbread, coffee, and bootleg candy-bars. Even Yvon, in his corner, giggled a bit.
Janey stood, dusting the twigs from her skirt. No one else felt compelled to move. She coughed. “I’m going to go join Yvon in his corner now. I’m going to tickle him out of Nirvana.” Horrified by the prospect, Yvon glanced up. It was times like these that we appreciated Janey. She smiled and settled back down on the ground. Yvon flushed amicably. “What can I say?” He inched closer to the group and opened his hands. “If someone is gone, then they’ve left.”
“Oh bravo,” twittered Hans.
Yvon serenely went on. “The polite thing to do is to just let them go. It’s useless to try to catch up. One cannot be caught up. It’s a myth.”
I clapped my hands to my ears. “Yvon!”
“Astrid. Don’t gimme that,” he said simply. “It’s true.” He traced circles in the dirt with his finger which we all found ourselves tersely following. “If I didn’t let them wander out of my mind, I’d sit in a room all day long and torture myself with their image, trying to picture their day, just one single day, what they wore, what they said, how they smelled. And they would have nothing to picture me doing. How is that fair?”
No one knew how to respond. The silence bloomed grotesquely, shoving our bodies farther apart and clogging our throats much like wrath does, and with ringing gravity we found ourselves forced to look away: away from our friends and into the darkness, far drunker than we as the black shapes of cornstalks swaggered and whined. For one dizzy instant I vowed never to forgive Bird as the heat of his forearm pursued me, and then Hans, when he let out a vivacious yawn. I physically longed to be alone, but had not the strength to leave.
It was all on Janey now. She growled cheerfully and pinned her eyes on Yvon, whose most famous attribute was how he looked and acted the same in every situation. “Yvon...ever the life of the party, huh?”
He smiled and re-crossed his legs like a child.
The corn lisped chilling invocations.
“Well.” Janey tried to sound casual. “I don’t know about Shaman Yvon here, but I for one won’t forget any of you. Maybe I haven’t dropped enough acid but you all seem real to me.” Everyone stirred and grinned in supreme discomfiture. She plowed on. “I know that June is far away. Hell, I’m counting down until Christmas break. But I still gotta admit, what little time I’ve spent at this dump with these dicks and their new-age psychobabble has been, oh, how would Yvon say it? Brightened by your presence. Hah.”
She settled backwards into the dirt and sighed with tremulous relief. “It was hell at first, that’s undeniable. But as soon as I got to know you guys, everything went smoother. Getting to know y’all has been a real pleasure.”
Bird buried his face in his snifter—empty. Yvon kept on strumming his affable battles in spirit. Hans and I made eye contact over their heads and were silent. We were trying to decide whether or not what she’d said was the truth.