map What Comes After the Fall?

by Michael Wense

Published in Issue No. 193 ~ June, 2013

Photo by Krystle Fleming (Kemp, TX)

If I’m never able to forget, what I’ll always remember is the sound. Something like a sack of potatoes falling off the side of a truck, like when I was twelve and visiting my grandparents’ farm.

It was late autumn when the girl, Lisa Marling, came down from the roof of the science building. She didn’t just come down, though; she was a jumper. When I see the news stories on TV, that’s what I call people who take the plunge and off themselves.

When people asked me, later, in that shocked, wide-eyed way, “What happened?” I wasn’t able to say. Not specifically. I didn’t see her do it. Things only clicked after that moment of shock-still silence that blanketed the quad, when I turned my head to look at the swell of commotion rising near Woodson Hall.

When she jumped, I was late for Professor Cassell’s calculus class. Typical. It was a few steps shy of impossible to get there on time from my economics course, and so I had to walk fast, almost run, to beat the closing door. The chill in the breeze made me move faster, and I might not have noticed it at all had I not been stuck behind what, I swear to god, must have been the slowest moving students ever. All the people in front of me — all the freshmen I didn’t know, all the upperclassmen I might have known but had forgotten — moved like batters walked to first base.

I kept wanting to push between them, but I couldn’t make it, and so, like a mantra, I kept repeating, Come on. Come on. Besides, I was never much of a football player. If I am a fag, I’m a fag who likes sports, but anybody who likes getting smashed into the ground by a guy rocking two-fifty is just an idiot. Baseball’s always been my thing.

I tucked my head down. My neck gets cold easily, but I don’t wear a scarf. And though my fingers were damn near ice cubes, off the field I don’t wear gloves. I tried to focus on my breath, the rise of it before me, as it dissipated.

The line of students started to spread, and I thought I might be able to get by them. I glanced at my watch. My chances of making it were slim, but that only pushed me. Before I could break through, though, some dark-haired girl cut me off, wedging herself in the opening I was going for.

“Fuck,” I whispered, so soft that it might as well have been my breath, coming out only to disappear. I didn’t want her to hear me. I’m not an asshole. If I wasn’t in such a hurry it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

She had a confident stride, but not overdone. There are girls who strut, ugly as horses. And then there are undiscovered models, shoulders slumped, who look down at the ground. Those were always the easiest for me to fuck. The ones desperate for attention, relieved when I came along to show them a little affection.

I wondered what this girl’s face looked like. Her hair was long, and pretty. Probably, even as recently as a year ago, had I given her a little effort, I could have gotten her into bed.

The more I looked at her, the more I wondered if I had known her. I recalled nights with similar girls, and the chance brush with someone I’d slept with made me cringe. Reunions were always awkward. Especially now.

I have to laugh sometimes. I think about these things a lot — more than any of the guys I know would. They can fly through girls without a regret, but I think too much. Not that I ever really felt bad. I’m not that sensitive. I can barely remember when my father’s birthday is until I’m right up on it and I have that smack of realization, like what kicks in when I know to slide to avoid a baseman’s hands.

I didn’t stop when I heard the sound and the hush that followed it. Even when I looked back to see that some girl, some jumper, had given up and thrown herself down. And I probably wouldn’t have stopped even if I’d known then that it was Lisa Marling, whom I had slept with almost a year ago, when I was teetering, panicked and scared, on the verge of being outed.

What I did do was run. A dead sprint for the doors of the math building. The people in front of me had stopped and turned, standing with lost expressions on their faces. Some of them were freshmen — they had that newness still — and I could see the horror in their eyes as the realization dawned on them. Their wall broke up. I slipped by.

Back near the body, a girl screamed.

After calculus I had a history course, and Professor Dandridge was sitting on his desk with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. I could hear the other students talking, their voices flowing in and out and over one another like when my grandfather used to turn the dial on his old wooden radio.

I walked in the room, and Professor Dandridge looked at me. “Derek,” he said, “have a seat.” His voice sounded caught off-guard. Even his face, still a few years shy of thirty, looked weathered. Around the room, I could see glazed eyes, blank expressions. Even Andrew Morrow, who I thought never would have given a second thought to a girl he didn’t know, looked stunned. His face, normally handsome, hung like a cheap Halloween mask above his neck.

I took my seat, and, next to me, Jackie Lesterman asked, “Oh my god, did you see? Did you see it happen? Someone fucking jumped.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. I slid my backpack to the floor next to my usual spot.

In the stillness I had time to register things, to dwell. What, I wondered, would push someone to that point? I know confusion. I know difficulty. But killing myself? That had never crossed my mind.

It unsettled me how still things stood. Professor Dandridge, even though he was a cool guy, never let things get in the way of class. Like Professor Cassell, the closing of his door was more than just practicality; once it was shut, walking in took on the ballsiness of cracking a joke at a funeral. So, it was strange for us to be sitting here with him perched on his desk, his eyes down, looking nowhere, like he were waiting for the solution to some impossible equation. I wondered if he knew the girl, whoever she was. Of course, he was new, had only been teaching for about a year. Surely the death of a student couldn’t be prepared for; it had to be lived through.

It bothered me, us just sitting there, waiting in the stillness. When I listened, I could hear people breathing. Muted voices floated in the hall. And an echo of that feeling behind the wall of students rose again. I caught myself thinking, Come on, come on. People killed themselves every day. Did everyone around them stop when it happened? The world would never get going again, I thought, if that were the way things worked.

I heard footsteps and the sound of someone walking in the room. When I looked up I saw Kevin Dawson, a friend of mine, or the closest I had to one, coming toward me. There was an empty desk behind mine, and he sat down with what, in the hush, sounded a little like a body hitting pavement.

“Hey, man,” I said, my voice low. I turned sideways in my seat and looked at him.

“Hey. Did you hear?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I fucking saw her lying on the ground, man. Have you heard who it was?”

He shook his head no, eyeing the unsettled stillness of the room and the little pockets of people whispering together. “Crazy, man. Just crazy.” After a few minutes, he said, “Are you still coming to Bruce’s party tonight?”

Bruce Havernick, a friend of Kevin’s, had given him an open invitation a couple of weeks ago. I’d almost forgotten that Kevin had invited me. I felt a little dirty, something like less than myself, answering in the middle of everything. I whispered, “I’m not sure. I don’t know if I feel up to it.”

“Oh, man, this hasn’t got to you, too, has it?” he asked, motioning with his eyes around the room, which moved in its stillness through subtle murmurs of secondhand grief and consolation. He paused to take in Jackie next to me, the way her crossed arms pushed her breasts up.

“Don’t be an asshole,” I said. In truth, though, things did feel a little overwhelming, and going to a party the same night as one of the student body jumped to her death felt callous in a way that pushed me too far. I looked up at Kevin. I saw that peculiar glare in his eyes. It was the same one that in the past year always seemed to say, “Come on. Really?” Like I was some kind of pansy, a type someone might laugh at while flipping TV stations.

“Come on, dude,” he said. “I don’t want to go by myself. I need a wingman there. I need somebody to cart me home if I get fucked up.” He laughed as though he were joking. Most everyone who cared to, knew that Bruce could supply you with decent pot, some Adderall if you needed it. On a couple occasions I even heard of him scoring someone pain meds, but rumor had it that earned him a two-week sit-out from the university football team. “Besides, there’s gotta be some guy cheerleader there you can blow.”

“Fuck you,” I said.

And still, after a pause, I reconsidered. Whether it was just to prove him wrong or because I actually wanted to go, it might at least get my mind out of the rut it was stuck in.

“Fine. I’ll go.”

“That’s more like it,” Kevin said, elbowing my arm. “I’ll be there at seven. Meet me there.”

He turned away and we both settled into the hush.

What felt like hours, when I finally checked my phone, were only about ten minutes. My eyes wandered around until the beep of someone’s cell chipped at the silence and I overheard one of the girls at the far end of the room mention the name Lisa Marling. From what I could hear, no one knew her. Her name was passed around like a puzzle nobody knew how to solve, as if it came with a question mark tacked on the end.

Lisa Marling.

The name stuck, and I rolled it over and over in my mind like a smooth stone in my hand.

Later, by the time I got to Bruce’s party, it was almost quarter after seven. I wondered if Kevin would be annoyed with me. Sometimes I joked that if there was one redeeming quality to the guy, it was his impeccable timeliness; he hated being made to wait. I hoped that Bruce would have provided enough of a distraction.

After having to circle the street twice, I parked along the crowded curb, two blocks away. His house, a one-and-a-half-story deal that otherwise would have made an impressive statement for someone in his last years of college, stood between respectable homes like an impostor. In the coming months, snow might cover some of the place’s imperfections, but now I could make out spots on the window shutters where the paint had chipped away and up in the gutters where dead reddish leaves had collected, clotting like blood. If it had been summer, the lawn would have needed cut. In the ragged evergreen hedges flanking the front porch, I could see a few dying branches, naked of their needles, sticking out like broken bones. Immediately I thought of the name, Lisa Marling, and its familiar ring. From the sidewalk I could feel the thump of music and the swell of voices seeping through the walls.

The front door stood cracked open and, inside, when I saw how packed the place was, I considered turning around. At first glance, the crowd reminded me of the mass on the quad, people gathering to see what had happened, who had jumped. Besides, parties weren’t my thing anymore. Before news about me spread, I could hang out with the most popular, drinking into the early hours, shooting the shit and laughing. Once everyone heard rumors I was gay, that all changed. People who once slapped my shoulder now gave me the “Oh, hey” head nod and turned away. Guys who had whispered drunkenly in my ear that their girlfriends wouldn’t fucking go down on them because they were stuck up bitches now whispered behind my back, “He’s a fucking fag, man. Can you believe it?” If I wasn’t so good at baseball, if I couldn’t bat in runners like the rest of these assholes can sprout acne, I might have counted my time on the team gone. And though I’ve gotten used to whatever this is, being semi-accepted, I can’t say I like it very much. I miss the things I used to have.

Kevin was one of the few who stuck with me. Even if he had been the one to let the news loose. But having a few fairly good friends couldn’t quite make up for so many that really wanted nothing to do with me. And without him here by my side I felt exposed, on display. I half expected the sea of people to part before me. I could see them wondering what exactly this strange creature, this co-inhabitant of two very different worlds, was doing here. Through the thump of music playing I could almost hear the whispers from the corners of the room.

Most of the faces in the crowd were unrecognizable. A lot of what appeared to be freshmen or sophomores were girls. The guys all looked older, and in the icy glances they gave me I felt like a ghost walking among the living. When I caught them, they turned away. Not embarrassed, exactly, but like they’d just been caught eyeing a cripple in a wheelchair, trying to see if his legs ended abruptly. But maybe I was just being paranoid.

I tried to find Kevin or even Bruce in the masses, but I couldn’t make them out. Instead, I spotted a boy whom I’d imagined having sex with when he sat in front of me last semester in a cultural diversity seminar. Behind him, a couple of girls I had shared an algebra class with, so drunk their upturned hands nearly held their red plastic cups sideways, flirted with Eric Downs and Paul Westmere, a pair of basketball players. From where I stood the girls seemed uninteresting, desperate for attention. I wondered if, sobered up, they would still think they might have a chance with Eric and Paul, who were tall and handsome and normal. I wondered if, drunk enough, I might consider myself having a chance with any of them.

A drink sounded good. But I didn’t want to take one without saying hi to Bruce first. So I searched for him. At the very least, I figured I might find Kevin hanging around. Besides, the living room made me feel cagey and suffocated. I needed to move, and that’s what I did.

The kitchen felt a little less cramped, but I still couldn’t quite call myself comfortable there. The loudness, though present, wasn’t as pressing. It felt like being aware of a crowd, noticing but not acknowledging it, in the moment before a pitch. Here, around me, stood people making conversation about shared courses and despised professors. They were all younger than me. They talked about classes I’d worked through, and though I did not think of myself as old, I felt as though something had passed me by. I extended the fingers of my right hand, stretched them like I did before stepping up to the plate. I really needed a drink. My head gave a little throb, and I could feel the rise of a headache.

Someone opened the refrigerator door, and a white light spilled out behind me. I turned around, the cool hum of the motor in my ear, and I saw some guy reaching in for a beer. But for a second it looked like the white light held a person, too, a girl standing there. She had no defining features, only intimations of form and structure. I only saw her for an instant, but she appeared hazy around the edges, like someone had drawn her in deep pencil and then tried, furiously, to erase her.

I pinched the bridge of my nose.

And when I opened my eyes again, the door was shut. The guy was moving on, out into the dining room and beyond. I noticed one of the freshmen girls in the room looking at me, her eyes two spots of cold judgement on her otherwise pretty face.

“Dude, there you are.”

I turned away from the fridge and saw Kevin standing in the doorway to the living room. He had a beer bottle with just a little foam at the bottom, and he flashed a smile at the girl who’d looked at me. “Where were you?” I asked. “I’ve been looking for you for ten minutes.”

He motioned his head toward the ceiling. “Upstairs. Dude, Bruce has got this real deal shit upstairs that will blow your mind.”

I started to protest when Kevin reminded me that we were off-season, that the university wouldn’t be drug testing until the start of next semester, which was still a couple months away. Normally, I would have brushed him off, but my headache felt stronger now, and I thought some pot might bring it down.

Kevin led the way upstairs, to a spare bedroom, sparsely furnished, where Bruce sat with his head leaned back. At first I wondered if he were passed out, but then I saw the thick muscles of his neck draw his head up, and he looked at me with only slightly glassy eyes.

“What’s up, brother?” he said.

“Hey, man. Not much.”

I knew Bruce only peripherally; we shared some friends through the world of university sports, but I’d never actually met him. Of course, when I would go to football games, I’d watch him dazzle the crowd with his predatory rush, his alpha desire to win. Standing a few feet away now, I could see the denseness to him. He seemed built from the feet up, placed perfectly into the jeans and tight polo he wore.

The room stank of pot, a smell that I had never really taken to despite smoking several times. The smell made me think of disgrace and ruin, something my mother claimed all drugs led to. Drinking wouldn’t throw me off the baseball team, but smoking would. I guess that played into the worry, too, a little. Baseball seemed to be my only constant thing anymore.

Laid out on the floor were various pieces. Bongs, pipes. Some of them looked as cheap as children’s toys while others were hand-painted and ornate. A bag of deep green buds sat between Bruce’s naked feet, and one of his big toes stroked the plastic like it were a pet.

Kevin and I sat down and Bruce lowered himself to the floor, where I lit at a pipe, inhaled, and passed it with a pinched face to Kevin.

My head still hurt, and the smell in here didn’t exactly help, but what pressed on my mind more than the pain was the sight of the girl, the not-there shape of her, in the kitchen. You are feeling some pressure, my friend, I told myself, and I wanted to laugh at the understatement but, even as I got high, I couldn’t find laughter in me.

Bruce and Kevin spoke about something that neither pertained to nor interested me, so I leaned back on my elbows and looked at the room’s sole window, its drawn curtains, and wondered what it might be like to climb through and float down to the ground. Like Lisa Marling. I was just high enough that the idea found footing in my head, but the effort of getting up outweighed my curiosity. What, I wondered, had she felt, standing up there? How bleak had everything seemed that that became the better option?

Sitting there, I remembered my time with her. I hated thinking about any of the girls I used to sleep with, but Lisa most of all. Even in my haze, I could feel myself fighting the memory, and I imagined part of me trying to push things down, down, down, deep inside where I might not have to face it. But it was like trying to force oil underwater, and the memory split and spread out of my fingers.

She had been a pretty girl, a sophomore when I was a junior, but unconfident to a degree that, I figured, must have put people off. She could have had boyfriends, though on our first and only date she said she hadn’t had any. Not real ones anyway. As soon as I saw her, she caught my eye as one of those easy conquests, but she surprised me. It took three or four conversations over lunch before she agreed, apprehensively, to see me, and even then only on a date, like a real romance. I don’t know why I pursued her. I don’t know why I kept on after she shot my advances down. But when she finally relented, she was a girl quick to love and nearly as quick, in the deadly silence after sex, to speak it out loud.

After she said she loved me, she caught herself, backtracked, tried to cover it up with, “I mean, like. I like you. A lot.” But I knew that, deep down, she meant it. I could feel it in the way that her heart, beating quickly beneath her skin and the thin blanket above it, reached out for me, wanting me desperately. I recognized it because it was the way I had felt, in my last year of high school, when I had fallen into bed with Todd Andrews, who was out and proud and all that bullshit. I’ve never been drawn to his kind of faggy displays I used to laugh at, maybe genuinely, with my friends. That’s never been me. I would dismiss and ignore Todd the next day, tell him that if word ever got out about us, I would make his life a living hell. So I knew wanting. And I knew I didn’t want Lisa.

My buzz was starting to wear down, and I became vaguely aware of Bruce and Kevin next to me. Kevin glanced over, checking to make sure I was okay, and I thought for a brief moment that I wanted him to kiss me. And then I remembered Lisa, her lips, and me pulling away from her, out from under the sheets and into the dark of the bedroom, where her last up-close sight of me would be my silhouette disappearing out her dorm room door.

Beneath me, the music playing in the living room felt like the pulse from some determined heart that refused to stop beating. Kevin and Bruce sat next to me, but suddenly I thought I could feel someone else in the room, standing behind me. I knew it like I knew where the ball would be as I ran, feet pounding the hard dirt and the give of the vinyl bases, so fast I sometimes thought I could outrun myself. The image of the outline in the kitchen, the figure near the refrigerator, crept up into my head, and the room started to draw in upon itself.

The next thing I knew, Kevin was shaking me, his hand gentle on my shoulder, and for the longest second I thought it was Lisa’s hand, but all I could push out was a desperate moan. I could smell Kevin’s pot breath as he asked, “Dude, you okay? You coming down?”

I opened my eyes and saw the ceiling fan making soft circles above me. I was still high. I could feel it. Just like I could now feel a breeze coming through the window. But I was coming down, slowly.

“You were really taking hits there, champ,” Bruce said, and laughed. “I’ve never seen anybody black out on weed before. This your first time or something?”

I ignored him. One of my first practices in high school I had misjudged a slide into third base and slammed the back of my helmet int the ground so hard that I passed out. That was how I felt now. Kevin helped me to my feet. The headache was still there, lurking at the back of my head like a listless animal deep in the jungle. “I think I gotta go home, man,” I said.

“Are you okay to drive?” His voice, flip as always, now carried a spark of concern, too. I almost didn’t notice it through the receding haze of smoke and the sound of Bruce’s giggles, which he tried to hold back with a clenched face and a balled-up fist to his mouth.

I started to say yes, that I would be fine, but I stumbled a little, my head still light and the animal slinking its way through the darkness there, and Kevin drove me home.

By the time I pushed open my apartment door, my head had cleared considerably, but, four flights up, the rest of me felt as though I had just finished the last inning of a particularly grueling game. The place was dark, except for a little strip of light that crept in from the bottom of the kitchen window, something the late-night coffee shop on the street below always offered up. Though I could make out my things, they looked like echoes, faded and nearly forgotten, as though I were only remembering them. I could still feel Lisa Marling’s hand on my shoulder.

Flicking the light switch, I stepped inside, Kevin a few paces behind me, and I groaned as I sat down on the couch. Kevin stepped into the kitchen and pulled a beer out of the fridge. I was about to ask him, “Do you think I’m an asshole?” when he offered to bring me a beer, too, and though I was tired and it seemed like a bad idea after Bruce’s house, I said, “Sure.”

The glass bottles and cans in the door rattled when he closed the fridge, and the sound made me shudder.

Kevin handed me the beer and sat down at the other end of the couch. We popped the cans open, one right after the other, and each took a drink. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him drink, and I wondered why I had never thought of pursuing him. He was in shape, handsome. We got along well.

But, of course, I had.

A year earlier, when we were both drunk and I invited him back to the apartment, we were sitting almost exactly where we were now. He held the television remote, and when I reached for it, he pulled away. I went at it again, reaching over him, the beer in my other hand sloshing out of the can and onto the cushion. He laughed — “You’re so fucking wasted, dude…” — and I slipped, ended up on top of him. The remote clattered to the floor as my fingers gripped his hand.

And for a second…

For a second I felt as though everything were perfect. In my mind flashed all the things I had never dared imagine listening to my grandparents’ radio, or sitting next to them in the cab of their truck hauling potatoes, as neither a child nor a man, somewhere in between, just beginning to realize that I felt different. On top of Kevin, I tried to put my lips on his, but he twisted away, and as he moved his leg I felt the softness of his disinterest, the slight stir of his repulsion.

He stumbled to the floor. “Dude,” he said. I felt slightly sobered, and embarrassed, and I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t nearly as drunk then as he was before. “You’re a homo.” And he laughed softly.

Then came Lisa Marling and Kevin’s eventual loose-lipped breaking of my news.

Now, Kevin and I talked for a while about the upcoming baseball season and our mutual hatred of state university teams. We took off our shoes and settled into the shitty cushions of my shitty couch in the biggest room of my shitty apartment where I had never kissed anybody I loved and I feared I never would. And though I stopped after the first beer, Kevin kept drinking. A pause came, and after a few moments of dead silence I said, “I slept with her, you know. About a year ago. Lisa Marling, I mean. The girl who killed herself.”

He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t.

“I knew, going in,” I said. “I knew it would just hurt her. And I didn’t care.”

It felt like a brick had found its way into my stomach, and I suppose that’s what guilt feels like when you realize how much you should probably be carrying. Maybe she would have done it anyway, I thought. What happened was a year behind us. But I supposed it didn’t really matter. What I’d caused her was enough. For me anyway. Not to mention all of the others, who numbered more than I could easily count without a goddamn yearbook in front of me.

Maybe I can’t love. Maybe I’m just afraid of it.

When I finally looked over at Kevin I thought he was passed out. His fifth can of beer listed dangerously to the side. I felt numb except for the headache, back again, that seemed to throb from somewhere deeper inside me than I’ve ever felt. I stood and reached for the beer in his hand.

“No, no, no,” he said, pulling it away. His voice sounded heavy and his words slurred again. “I’m not finished yet. Just don’t think about making any moves.”

“No,” I said. “I won’t.”

I started to go when he spoke up again.

“But,” he said, brushing the back of his head against the couch, “you’re an okay guy.” He sighed, as if sentences were a chore he had not been assigned but wanted to complete. “So what if you slept with a few girls. I mean they got something out of it, too, right? It’s not like you’re, you know, ugly or whatever.”

In the kitchen, I made my way through the shadows. I peered through the curtains at the breezy street and the coffee shop’s eternal light below.

Opening the window, I felt the cold autumn air stand the hairs on my arms straight up. There, in the light, I saw the same outline, the shape that beckoned me to come down, looking for that kiss. I stood there, hands gripping the edge of the window as tightly as when I picked up a bat for my first tryout in a little town south of Kansas City. My hands were sweating despite the chill. Little footprints in the snow looked like smudges on a piece of paper, and I wondered how long it would take me to land.

Lisa must have asked herself what it would feel like, hitting the ground like that. I wondered if the brick in my stomach would make me fall faster than she did.

Will it stay there? Will there be times when I think it might wear away?

Turns out it does, every so often.

But it always comes back.

I still have nights, lying in bed, just on the edge of dreaming, when I start to see myself as part of something boundless and expanding, like roots intertwining in the middle of a great forest. One where listless animals settle down, finally, to sleep. But mostly the room around me trembles so bad that I think it surely can’t just be me shaking, that there must be some unprecedented Midwest earthquake and that the fear it brings must be what’s making my wet eyes sting. And when I am able to drift off, sometimes I go back to standing there at my apartment window, where I look down at the empty length of road, and the silent offering of the shop, and the ghostly white light, almost wanting to jump but too afraid of the falling, the falling, like falling in love.