A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE
It's spring break 1986 and I'm staying at my dad's house in Denver instead of my mom's house in Denver because my mom hates Leon, my boyfriend for the last two years. My mom hates Leon because he's older than me and because I took the first semester off from college to live with him and because he deals coke. So, I'm staying at my dad's house instead of my mom's house or even at Leon's house because Leon has a new house and a new a roommate, and even though we're technically still together, being apart for the last few months makes it impossible to be close now. We are like a thread split in half, unable to tightly re-twine.
The first night at my dad's house I take off all my clothes and sit in the steam room. For the last three months I've been jumping out of my skin to escape college in Portland, but when I think about what I've come back to—who's out there waiting for me or maybe never even noticed I was gone—it's a jumbled mess of faces and names moving from club to club, from party to party, and makes me just want to sit alone in the moist heat. My dad says that the steam room is a good place for him to work things through, so I watch the steam circle around the light and try hard to think about all my problems—guys and sex and getting my first ever"D" and all that rain and the dealing coke disaster and the bloody noses I got after I quit—but I can't get close to any of it. It seems like the distance would be good, but it just makes me feel ripped apart from everyone and everything.
I didn't mean to sell coke at school, but when my R.A. found out Leon dealt back home she said I should start selling in our dorm. Selling makes you feel like you have control over other people even if you don't have control over yourself, so I started moving a quarter here or there, never more than an eight-ball. When the rumor that someone on my floor was dealing got to the Dean of Students, my R.A. refused to rat me out and was fired and kicked off campus. I don't know if that was out of loyalty to me or because she figured I would rat her out, too.
After I get out of the steam room I call Leon. We just saw each other—he picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at my dad's house—and as soon as he answers I realize I don't know what to say to him, not after I've slept with the guys I've slept with, so we just small-talk it for a few minutes and then say goodbye.
Later I go through some boxes in the basement and find my senior yearbook. The first note I read is from this girl in the punk scene that I used to hang out with. She quotes Lou Reed and says maybe I can come party with her if I get bored, and the last thing she writes is,"Don't overdo it on the snow, okay?" I re-read the note, wishing there was a"good luck" in there somewhere; I look through my entire yearbook for one goddamn"good luck" but there's not a single one scribbled in the glossy white margins.
I dream about Blair, a guy from school I slept with. In real life, he's a modern dancer and in my dream he's choreographing a dance I'm in, and my tutu is a giant Chicken of the Sea can. It's too ridiculous and I can't imagine what it means, but I wake up at 11:30 feeling scared and alone, like I'll be scared and alone forever. The feeling lingers with me throughout the day, an acrid tincture pulsing through my veins.
That afternoon I visit Julie at the new wave clothing store where she works, where we both used to work. We talk about music and clothes and our friends who are doing lots of X, and I ask her about her roommate, Lisa.
"One week she brought home a different guy every night," Julie says like she couldn't be more bored."She thinks she's pregnant."
"No doubt," I say.
"She has no idea who the father is. She'll just make it whoever she wants it to be."
Julie's got some version of the life I used to have and I honestly can't remember if I was happy. More has happened to me in the last three months at college than usually happen in a year, and she's still doing the same as when I left. But am I any better off? The only difference is now I'm more manic than everyone else at my neo-hippie school.
"Are you happy?" I ask Julie, thinking that'll make me remember how—who—I was when I lived here before.
She rests her chin on her hand and says,"Yeah, sure," but she doesn't look happy. She doesn't even look content. I tell her this and she shrugs,"I need a change."
We end the conversation by saying,"Yeah, we'll go dancing Sunday night," and I leave.
When my brother comes home from college that night he just stared at the way I'm dressed in paisley leggings and a knee-length sweater and a vintage polyester vest and a rosary and gold John Lennon glasses with no lenses and my bleached blonde hair with shaved sides, and he doesn't even try to be discrete about being disgusted. He walks past me and turns a basketball game on T.V.
My friends Rebekah and Aaron and I are sitting on my bed listening to the Psychedelic Furs and The Cure and Talking Heads and reading the liner notes, and we're real bored so we decide to get some coke. It's been 29 days since I've done it and I at least wanted to make it to 60 to give myself some sense of accomplishment. I tell myself that just because I do it tonight doesn't mean I'm hooked again, and then I realize that there's no such thing as hooked again—hooked is hooked—and that freaks me out. I wonder if the panic shows in my eyes, but Rebekah and Aaron are putting on their coats like everything's fine, because that's how mechanical all this has become for us.
We drive to Leon's new house where he lives with his new roommate, and Aaron and Rebekah wait in my dad's Cadillac while I run upstairs to Leon's bedroom. He owns a café and has to be at work at five in the morning so he's always in bed early now, not like when we first met, when I had to lobby my mom to get my curfew changed from midnight to one am. At first she didn't understand why that one hour made a difference, and it might have been the first time she realized that whatever Leon and I were doing wasn't all bad, but was about comfort and companionship, too.
I hug and kiss Leon and assure him that we'll go out tomorrow night and he gives me a seal and I feel like a coke whore. I tell him I love him but I've got to go because Aaron and Rebekah are waiting in the car. He says,"Yeah, she's probably giving him head by now," and I laugh and run downstairs. As I'm getting in the car I realize I forgot to lock Leon's door and turn on the alarm, which is super dicey with all that blow lying around.
I start the car and drive away.
Rebekah's sister is in Aspen, so we go to her apartment. Rebekah's sister lives alone and has a real job and wouldn't that be something? To have a real job and a real apartment and a real life, not like when Leon and I were playing house, knowing the entire time that I would leave for college in January, that there was a backdoor out of it all.
I find a big mirror already spotted with coke and an empty Bic pen already caked with coke, and Rebekah's freaking out because she didn't know her sister did coke, and I'm wondering who doesn't? We talk about high school and parties and sex and our friends who have died, and none of that matters as much as the burning in my nose, the burning in my veins, like a live wire let loose in there. That's the way this shit always goes.
As we're leaving the apartment it's like Aaron finally sees the traces of panic in my eyes."Are you okay?" he asks, but it's already much too late.
We say goodbye in front of my dad's house. Rebekah goes to her car and I kiss Aaron goodnight and he just stands there like he wants more and I wonder what he expects—for us to do it in his car in front of my dad's house? I tell him that I'll call him, and I walk toward the front door.
The first thing I do is take a shower and tell myself over and over again that what I've done really isn't that bad and I'll be fine, I'll be fine.
I lie in bed with all the lights on. I try to remember the last time I was comfortable or content—hell, I'm not even looking for happy—and it's so long ago that I can't recall it in my brain or my body. You'd think that would make me sad or at least scared, but it's like I'm in some black hole where love and fear and hope and confusion have collapsed into a heavy, dense mass and nothing can escape. In Portland I express emotion about every little thing—I sob and I shriek and I shake and do I ever laugh?—and I wonder what it is about Denver that can make me act so detached. It must have something to do with the change in altitude.
The red numbers on my clock read 4:07. I always think of morning as starting at 4:30 and that's all I have to do—get to sleep in the next 23 minutes, and then it won't be like I was up all night.
I have a sudden craving for orange juice. I think about how Rebekah's gained the Freshman Fifteen and I can pinch an inch around my hips for the first time in my life, too, and maybe Leon doesn't find me attractive anymore because he's always said it's important that his girlfriend be skinny. I think of the cover of Purple Rain, Apollonia in some doorway staring at Prince and he's not even close to staring at her, and that reminds me of the lonely Petite Prince and I can't remember if he ever made it home, and there's a line from an Echo and the Bunnymen song and I wonder if anyone knows how brittle my little heart really is. I hear my heart pounding and realize there are two separate beatings. One is fast, and the other is a thump, thump, thump. The fast fast one is my heart, the thump thump is my head.
I never end up sleeping. I listen to"What Can't I Have You?" by The Cars over and over. I watch the early morning news and see that Ecstasy has been listed as a Schedule One drug, the same as heroin. It's weird that one day a drug is legal and the next day you're a criminal and a junkie for having it. I sit in the steam room and re-read the chapters in The Prophet about how death is like standing naked in the sun and the wind, and how love will thresh and grind and crucify you, and I wonder why Gibran didn't make love seem like a much better deal than death.
That afternoon I'm staring through the skylight above my bed and listening to Grace Jones. I think of the last night I spent with Shane in Portland, when he wanted to rub his dick between my breasts until he came and told me not to tell anyone we were seeing each other, and I think of Craig and I fighting one minute and fucking the next and then me crying and making him stop, and I think of Aaron standing outside last night like he wanted something more and the whole idea of sex seems really disgusting to me. And then there's Blair dancing on a stage without me.
It's date night and Leon and I are lying on his bed watching a movie on TV with the sound muted and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack on the stereo. The movie stars this girl who was in all the Disney movies when I was a kid. Now she's eighteen or something and is supposed to be real tough and sexy, but I still see her as a little girl with freckles and pigtails. The movie turns out to be super violent so I close my eyes and plug my ears and even start to feel sick to my stomach, but we don't change the channel.
I wonder what the hell I'm going to do about school, about Portland, about this fucking mess that is me. I catch myself thinking,"I wish I would just die," and I know I don't really mean it so I try to figure out what do I mean. I decide that,"I wish things were easy," and I laugh at myself for even thinking something so stupid. I doubt Leon can help me because he's so far past all this, and I wonder if anyone really can help. Not too long ago I thought that person was Blair, but a couple weeks back I told him about the Dean finding out that someone on my floor was dealing and how I wouldn't admit to it and how my R.A. wouldn't turn me in, even though the Dean fired her and kicked her off campus. Blair turned up his nostrils like he smelled rotten meat."I didn't ask her to do that," I said."She made that decision all on her own." Still, something changed between us after that.
When I leave Leon's house at 1:30 I kiss him goodnight and realize it's the first time our lips have touched all night.
I go home and lie in bed with all the lights on. I can feel the tears welling up, but they never fall, so I sigh—I mean it, I actually sigh—and turn off the lights and go to sleep.
When I get to Julie and Lisa's apartment on Sunday night, Julie's not dressed and is drinking a beer."I got really drunk at a wedding today," she says with a sloppy smile,"and am still trying to mellow out."
Lisa comes out to talk to me and is super friendly and asks me about college. She's wearing tons of makeup and her hair is big and I keep wondering who the father of her baby is.
We do the rest of the coke that Leon gave me, and I don't freak out like I did the other night and start to wish there was more. Lisa and Julie are taking forever to get ready so I stand in their dingy kitchen and stare out the window. I'm jealous that they have their own apartment, but seeing them again also makes me think I should go back to school. Because, what does this lead to? Where's the end? Where's even the next stop?
I'm jonesing for another couple of lines—that's what's so hard to explain, how something that gets you so wired is something you need so badly to calm you. Over the shitty apartment rooftops is a red neon sign that says JONAS BROS and even though there's nothing spectacular about it, I stare at the letters for a really long time, until Julie and Lisa say,"Let's go."
The bar's a big rectangle with a dance floor in the middle and no one's on it when we arrive. We sit down with two girls I used to hang out with, but I can't remember either of their names. Finally I hear Julie call one of them Jane and I remember the other is Beth and I'm relieved, like my whole life before college might be fake if I didn't get these two chicks' names.
I dance to a couple of songs, then take a break and sit down at the table with Lisa and Beth and Jane. A girl named Heather sits down next to me and Beth asks,"Do you know each other?" and we do know each other, but Heather says,"No." So Beth introduces us and I smile and say hi, but Heather just takes a long drag on her cigarette, then throws her head back as she slowly blows out the smoke and finally says,"Hi," in a husky voice. I wonder if the disconnect is about me or about her or is just what happens when this many people swill 3.2 beer near where Kerouac and all those cats used to hang.
After a couple of minutes, Heather leaves and Julie sits in her place."I feel like I'm really missing something," I say.
"No kidding." Julie nods her head in agreement.
"I mean, I just don't get it." I don't know exactly what it is I'm supposed to get—I just know I don't.
"I know what you mean," she says, but she really doesn't.
Lisa is yelling,"Fuck you, Robert, you're such a faggot!" to some guy walking by, and I hear myself mutter something about bad karma—a phrase that must have hitchhiked a ride on me from Oregon—and wonder if Robert's the father of her baby.
Finally we leave the bar and go back to Julie's apartment. As I'm getting my purse out of her room, I see a carved wooden sign amid all the pictures of when Julie used to do ballet, when she was thin and didn't smoke or do coke. The sign says, Dancers Do It With Rhythm, and it makes me choke on my bitter spit. I leave the room fast.
The next afternoon I sit in front of my dad's giant screen T.V. to watch Dallas re-runs, but there's a special news report on instead. Libyan and American forces have been shooting at each other since 11:00 this morning, and we're now in the process of sinking one of their ships but, some government suit says,"We are not in a war." I'm really scared and I want to talk to someone, but none of my friends in Denver would understand why it matters that people are being shot and killed halfway around the world.
I call my mom and we talk about Libya even though I want to talk about everything else, but if she doesn't approve of Leon she sure isn't going to approve of all the guys and sex and my first ever"D" and the dealing coke disaster and the bloody noses I got after I quit. Finally, Dallas comes back on and I can turn off the fear. Or mute it, at least.
I call Rebekah, who's back at college in Missouri—or Misery, as she calls it—and ask her if I should break up with Leon. I love him, but I don't know if it's long-haul love, the kind that survives me being in college and sleeping with other guys Leon doesn't know about. Rebekah says if I really feel that way, I should probably break up with him.
"Do you think he'll take it bad?" she asks.
"I don't think he's expecting it at all," I say.
I go over to Leon's house that night and he lays his head in my lap and looks like a defenseless puppy, and I know I won't be able to do it. As I'm tucking him into bed, I ask,"Am I still your best friend?"
He thinks about it a little too long, then says,"Well, you're one of my best friends."
"How come I'm not your best friend anymore?"
"I don't think we're as close anymore. It's like we already went through all that." He shrugs.
"Will we still be friends no matter what happens?" I ask.
I kiss him goodnight and he says,"I love you," and I just smile at him, so he asks,"Do you love me?"
"Of course," I answer."You're my best friend."
He looks worried, but I don't say anything to reassure him, just"Talk to you later" and I leave. This time I remember to lock the door and set the alarm.
The next day I just talk to Leon on the phone. He tells me that he's going dancing with some friends that night, but he's got a card for me that he'll drop off on his way. I'm anxious to see the card—even a little hopeful that it'll say something to make this all clear, what we're supposed to do with our relationship, but Leon and that card never come by.
I call him the next day."What happened to my card?"
"I changed my mind," Leon says."It's too mushy and sentimental."
"Since when does that matter?"
"I don't know," Leon says, and he sounds like he's talking into the phone from the other side of the room."I just didn't want you and your mom sitting around laughing at me."
I slam down the phone, and the thing is . . . I want to call my mom. We used to be great friends and we'd talk about blow jobs and smoking pot and what it means to be a woman. That's probably why she got so distant—not because of anything to do with Leon, but because I stopped talking to her about everything.
Leon calls me back."Why did you hang up on me?"
"I can't even believe you think I'd laugh at your feelings," I say."That's so insulting."
"I'm just insecure about our relationship." His voice is close now, not across the room. "If we have a relationship anymore."
"You don't understand," I whisper.
"That I have as much to lose as you."
We don't say anything else right then and there, but we both know it's over. It's just that neither of us have the guts—or the heart—to pull the trigger.
I make a mix-tape for Leon that I drop off at his work. On the cover I write a line from an O.M.D. song, a line about how we'll always be friends, or meet again, or something like that, someday.
When I get to Leon's house he's listening to the tape. We listen together for a while without saying anything, and towards the end he starts crying. Not just teary eyes, but real sobbing, and I think I've never seen anything like it in my entire life, and it makes me cry too. We cry for a while, then we eat frozen Chinese dinners, and then I tell him I don't love him anymore and he says he doesn't love me either. We watch some T.V. and I go home.
And after two years, Leon and I are broken up.
Thursday is sunny so I lie out in the backyard. My brother is digging a hole for some reason and when he finally notices me on the grass, he asks,"Are you trying to get a tan?"
"Not necessarily," I say."I'm just trying to look less dead."
He doesn't get it.
I tell him he would if he lived in Portland, and he asks me why I stay there if I don't like it. I tell him I've been trying to figure that out for the last three months of my life.
Later, Julie and I drive around listening to Cabaret Voltaire. She says that Scott had to have his stomach pumped and has been in the hospital all week because he did ten hits of X on Saturday night. She thinks he's fucking up his life and I'm, like,"Well, sure," and she says,"No, it's not just that drugs and the booze, he's sleeping around a lot too. On Saturday night, he fucked Omar."
"Everyone fucks Omar," I say.
"And Mark at the same time."
"Christ." It's not like Scott doesn't have a girlfriend and I wonder if she was there, too."Does Lisa still think she's pregnant?"
"She hasn't had a period for a couple of months," Julie says.
"Hasn't she seen a doctor yet?"
"No. Who knows, she could be too far along for an abortion now."
I wonder why Julie, as Lisa's best friend, doesn't maybe tell her this. When Julie drops me off in front of my dad's house, she asks,"Are you going dancing tonight?"
"I don't know." I adjust my sunglasses against the mile high sun."I still don't get it."
"Yeah, I know," she says."So, I'll see you there."
When I get to the bar it's packed with girls wearing denim mini skirts and guys in cowboy boots. I ask Lisa and Julie what's going on, and they're all glum."College kids. Spring break." It makes sense for a second, but then I remember no one at my college dresses this way.
When Beth shows up she immediately lights a cigarette and says,"I'm in the worst mood."
"I've never seen you in a bad mood before," I say.
"Yeah, well my cousin was murdered a couple of months ago, and we just found out that the guy who did it got off with light sentence. Hiya' hon," she says and squeezes the arm of the pretty boy next to her."Anyway," she says to me,"I'm not exactly sure why I'm here."
I nod my head slowly."Yeah, I can see that."
By 11:00 I'm more bored than I've ever been and decide to leave. All at the same time, some guy asks me to dance and Julie asks me if I want to go thrift shopping the next day and the guy sitting behind her smiles at me. I tell Julie yes, even though I mean no, and I look over the head of the guy smiling at me and tell the other one I'm leaving and I don't think he understands. I sit in my dad's car for a long time and stare at the bright lights and tall buildings and the forgotten railroad tracks and Kerouac's ghost, and realize I will die if I don't get the hell away from this city. I start the car and leave downtown behind.
On Friday afternoon I'm sitting at a table outside Leon's restaurant when Todd walks by wearing too much makeup with a really feminine haircut and some guy I've never seen before. I ask Todd where he's working and where he's living these days.
He waves a hand."Work? What work? I haven't worked in ages." I wonder how he's paying his bills and if the rumors are true that he's tricking at Cheesman Park."But I'm living in this great house in Capitol Hill. With Mark."
I want to ask him if it's true that Mark and Scott and Omar slept together, but I don't know the guy that's with him so I just ask,"Did you know Scott's in the hospital?"
"Yeah, he got out last night. I didn't know you know Scott. Do you also know—"
"Omar. Yeah, we know each other."
"Well that's my Saturday Night X Club," Todd says, remotely excited.
"You guys are still doing that?" I ask.
"Sure, why not?" he says, and it's only about the hundredth time I wonder if I'm the one missing something.
Todd sucks on his cigarette and looks around."I can't believe I've lived in Denver for a year now. And what have I done?" he asks."Five different jobs, five different apartments and five different hair colors." He laughs."And lots of drugs.
Despite all the make-up, he's still shit-ass pale and thin.
"So what are you doing here?" Todd asks."I heard you two broke up." He motions towards Leon's restaurant.
"Where did you hear that?" I ask, wondering if news could really spread that fast.
"Didn't you tell me? No?" He thinks a minute."Oh, I know. I saw you with another guy. No, wait. I saw him with another girl. Oh, I don't know," he waves a hand."Maybe I just heard it somewhere. I always thought he was too old for you anyway."
"Well, we only broke up two days ago," I say.
"Really? Hmm." He pauses."Well, I'm so hot I'm absolutely going to die. We've got to get out of this sun."
"Besides, it'll give you wrinkles when you're older," I say.
"Oh, who cares? As soon as I turn twenty-five I'm committing suicide anyway," Todd says and I believe him. He hugs me and says,"Ciao baby," then jumps in a white convertible Cabriolet with the other guy. They turn on some dance song—real loud—and wave as they speed toward The Rockies.
My plane sits on the runway for thirty-seven minutes before take-off. Soon I will be back at school and I'm not scared or anxious or lonely or jumping out of my skin. In a week I will move to the hippie dorm, where nobody even thinks of coke, where they smoke pot and drop acid and play acoustic guitar and give each other backrubs on threadbare sofas.
Blair will transfer to art school in San Francisco but won't tell me he's leaving; someone else will tell me and we will say goodbye only minutes before he drives away with a U-Haul hitched to the back of his car. A year later we will end up sitting next to each other on a bench in Union Square, but neither of us will acknowledge the other and he will eventually just walk away.
Leon will get a new girlfriend right away. He will propose to her and she will tell him he's not allowed to be friends with me, so he will burn all his pictures of me and throw away my letters. She will get pregnant and have an abortion and break up with him six months after they met. Two men will ambush Leon on his front lawn and hold him at gunpoint and steal his money and drugs and shoot his dog. Leon will never deal or do coke again. He will get married and I will go to his wedding, and a few years later he will go to mine. He will have two sons and get divorced, and when my entire family dies twenty-five years after Leon and I broke up he will help me clean out my dad's house before it goes into foreclosure.
Rebekah will get married surrounded by hundreds of sterling roses and she will raise two funny and generous daughters. One day we will sit on the steps of my dad's house and she will help me encase my dad and brother's urns in bubble wrap to ship from Denver to Portland, where my husband I live.
My mom's ashes are already sprinkled in Half-Moon Bay.
Julie will marry a guy she barely knows. He will hit her and hit her and hit her, until one day their daughter's pleads"Please don't kill mommy!" so Julie will leave him and finally marry someone kind.
Todd will die of AIDS.
I watch the sun sink behind the Rocky Mountains, turning the sky orange and pink and magenta red and I think it's the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen. My plane finally takes off and I wonder if we'll crash into the Continental Divide. As we climb higher into the cumulus stratus stratocumulus I feel like crying, but I can't, I can't for days—for weeks—afterward and I never really know why. Maybe it's the change in altitude.
Liz Prato is the author of Baby's on Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her fiction and nonfiction has been published in over two-dozen journals, including Hayden's Ferry Review, The Butter, Hunger Mountain, Subtropics, The Rumpus, and ZYZZYVA. She lives in Portland, OR, and teaches at literary festivals across the country. Her current mantra is: Be bearers of peace, grace, and mercy.