I wake up to find my fraternity letters emblazoned across my chest in an ink so black I feel that I’m gazing into the depths of my hollowed soul. The Greek characters only stand about six inches tall, but they loom, monolithic, in my hazy vision. I am sprawled on the crusty beige carpet of my fraternity’s common room, stale Crunchberries and toenail clippings tangled into my unwashed hair. A puddle of vomit stews around me– perhaps the effluvia are my own, but, judging by their yellowish timbre, more likely from Big Bad Bob, whose addiction to screwdrivers and mimosas makes his highly acidic discharges easy to track. In confirmation of my theory, I see the auspicious mound of Big Bad Bob’s considerable gut rising and falling not three feet from my face. His T-shirt fails to cover the entire topography of his belly and I can see sweaty clumps of black hair dotting the path from his belt to his cavernous navel. He smells like perspiration and beer, which makes me simultaneously nauseated and thirsty. A beer would be nice.
I tentatively come to my knees, feeling the whole time as though I’ve just come off the corrugated Tilt-a-Whirl at that skate park in Little Rock. Life has taken a dump on me, I think, as I fight to focus my bleary eyes. And, judging by the smell of it, life– or Jeff– may well have pissed on me, too. I know that I only have to take about twenty-five steps in order to get to the well-stocked beer cooler that acts as the centerpiece of our kitchen, but the floor is littered with the near-comatose bodies of last night’s fellow revelers and, besides, the fluid in my inner ears sloshes around like the waterbed of a pair of overweight newlyweds. My mouth dry and sticky, I gaze into the expanse of the common room that bobs before me and reassess the necessity of my intended beer. However, the painful throbbing of my temples begs for anesthetic, so I struggle to my feet and pick my way gracelessly around the prone figures of pledges and brothers, like a cheeky newspaper reporter surveying the damage done at Gettysburg.
Halfway to my destination, I encounter Jeff, who has ostensibly risen for the same reason. Though he’s slight, he can pack away nearly as many jell-o shots as Big Bad Bob. The last time they competed, Big Bad Bob won by only two shots. Jeff was taken to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, but he returned as if victorious, showing off his medical bracelet to all the Beta Alpha Beta girls. He is standing shakily, supported by the sticky coffee table that doubles as an ashtray. His eyes are yellowed and bleary and red stubble has consumed his face like wildfire.
“Phat tat, asshat,” Jeff labors to say, holding the table with one hand and massaging his temples with the other. Jeff is the poet laureate of Sigma Tau Epsilon. He has a way with words that few can match– they pass out of his mouth with the same fluidity that the Bud Lite passes in.
I look down at my chest and am reminded of the branding I have received, though, at this point, I cannot yet remember from whom. I poke the ink with an exploratory finger and pain radiates through my body, sending up a mouthful of vomit, which I dutifully swallow.
“Thanks.” I reply.
“Gabe, don’t dink the ink. Motherfucking meathead.”
“Uh.” Jeff is always angry, especially when sober. Sometimes I wonder why, but generally I just accept his personality. Currently, I am too involved with my own dangerously uninebriated state to concern myself with Jeff’s peevishness, so I continue my loping amble towards the kitchen.
“If you’re bagging a beer, bum a Bud for your bud,” Jeff moans behind me, slumping resignedly to his knees.
“Yeah,” I assure him, trying to focus on the eight precarious steps remaining before me. I resolutely draw a stoic breath and pass through the doorframe of the kitchen. The room still reeks of last night’s party. Glass bottles stand everywhere– on the pitted countertops, on the unhygienic linoleum floor, and in pools of sticky, pungent liquid that sit like stagnant ponds throughout the room. Cabinet doors are ajar, phalanxes of ants swarm into the open dishwasher, and crusty bowls of old mac and cheese ferment peacefully beneath the small, murky window. Greenish fluorescent lighting burns relentlessly. Marco snores in the corner, his mouth hanging open and his fingers closed around the neck of a quarter-full bourbon bottle. A large black horsefly desperately fights to gain ingress to his nose.
In the center of the room stands the culmination of my odyssey– my Golden Fleece.
The six-foot beer cooler is as tall as I am, but it has the capacity for more alcohol than I could ever hope to contain in my 150-pound body. My parched mouth moistens as I anticipate the bounteous trove of liquor that resides within. I run a loving hand along the cooler and unlatch the door, letting out a pulse of frosty, beer-scented air. I grab a can of Coors for myself and a Bud for Jeff. Unable to wait until I return to the common room, I rip the tab off of my drink with my teeth and slam the cooler’s door shut with my foot. This disrupts my balance, and I stumble to regain equilibrium, spilling Coors on my glistening tattoo. The carbonation burns. Now pissed at the cooler, I turn around to give it a kick, but something on the door catches my eye.
“Behavior is what a man does, not what he thinks, feels, or believes.”
The quote is etched out in green glitter-pen onto a pink piece of heart-shaped stationery. It is held up by a magnet listing the State University football schedule. I burp loudly and consider the quote. The handwriting doesn’t appear to be Jeff’s. Besides, I try to remember whether or not Jeff has a glitter-pen. It seems unlikely.
“The girl left that,” a ragged voice comes to me.
I turn to Marco and realize that my belch has roused him from his stupor. His droopy red-rimmed eyes implore me to somehow redeem him from the burdensome acuity of sobriety.
“Girl?” I grunt.
Marco cringes at the too-loud sound of my voice. “I don’t know. Some freshman. That blonde girl who was on you all night.”
I grope into the recesses of my recent memory in search of any recollection. Coming up short, I shrug and turn to make the journey back into the common room. Marco halts me, however, with his next comment:
“She was hot, man. I wouldn’t pass that up.”
“Uh,” I grunt. Now that I have a beer, I could definitely use a girl. I check my digital watch and see that it’s only 2:00 p.m. I’ll need a shower if I’m going to do any leg work. I think of how the water pressure will feel on my brand new tattoo and decide that I’ll just cover myself in deodorant instead. The quasi-rationality of my decision indicates to me that perhaps my intoxication is fading. Jeff will be able to help me track down my Daphne and, with any luck, I’ll be laid by midnight. Perfect day.
The trip back to the common room is less perilous than my maiden voyage and I find Jeff crouched beneath the dartboard, combing his fingers through the copper-colored rug in search of any camouflaged coins. I give him the bottle and he wrenches off the top with skilled fingers. Around us, I hear the first rustlings of the waking brothers. Big Bad Bob, however, still sucks in ferocious snores that rattle the glasses on the coffee table.
“Was there a girl here last night?” I ask Jeff.
He looks up from his bottle long enough to roll his barely focused eyes at me.
“Sig Tau, pig! We always mix with chicks.”
I hate it when he plays games with me. “Did I fuck a blonde?”
“Ah, the Emily Dick chick. You guys clicked.” Jeff enjoys his dominance over me. His patience for pranks and games typically exceeds my own. I think that I will be seriously pissed if I find out that he really did pee on me the previous night.
“Did we fuck?”
Jeff pretends to think as he swigs another mouthful of beer. His levity intensifies as the alcohol starts to diffuse into his system.
“I wouldn’t bag a fag like you,” he shoots back.
I’m angry now. Jeff is standing between me and Blonde Girl Poet. He doesn’t understand how serious this is.
“Not us, motherfucker,” I continue, using the most scathing vernacular available to me at the moment, “me and the girl.”
“The babe’s a bookworm, bro,” he bleats, bringing the bottle to his lips, “so bop on by the bibble-o… bibble-o…” Jeff struggles over “bibliothéque,” the wool of a foreign tongue having been ruthlessly pulled over his eyes.
“Huh?” I say.
Jeff scowls at me, evidently pissed off at himself for having overshot his abilities. “Library, loser. Go bag the hag, and snag a six-pack before you track on back.”
Leaving Jeff to his alliterative incoherence, I stumble up to my room to pull on a soiled brown Foo Fighters T-shirt and consult my campus map for the library’s location. It’s all the way across the quad. I return to the kitchen to grab a Coors for the journey and, upon a moment’s reflection, fold up the Emily Dickinson quote and put it in the pocket of my shredded blue jeans. It’s go time.
The State University library is a quiet place on a sunny September Saturday. Aside from a handful of overstudious social derelicts, all is still. Everybody shoots me perplexed looks and I wish I were wearing a sign to explain that my purpose for being at the library was sexually motivated. As it turns out, according to the conservatively dressed young woman behind the reference desk, what I am wearing is a sexually explicit diagram of the male anatomy on my forehead. Apparently Big Bad Bob got me with his new Sharpie while I was asleep.
Shielding my forehead self-consciously from the librarian, whom I now recognize as the president of our campus Newman Club, I present my suit.
“Do you have a book by Emily Dick?” I ask.
A not-so-subtle frown sneaks across her youthful forehead and she fingers the golden crucifix that rests around her neck, as though she might need to call upon its otherworldly powers at any minute. She glances concernedly over her right shoulder, runs a hand through her drab brown hair, and replies:
“Do you mean Emily Dickinson?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Oops. Haha.”
“Yes,” she continues, through thinly veiled disapproval. “We have several. Over here.”
She grudgingly hoists herself from her perch behind the desk and brings me to the poetry section. She nods curtly to the correct aisle and, without another word, strides resolutely back to her desk. I am immediately disappointed to see that the only other person in the aisle is a homely continuing education student who wears an olive green beret and a plaid skirt over argyle knee socks. I look her up and down, but my interest is marginal. I will be satisfied with nothing less than the promised Blonde Girl Poet.
My eyes drift over the stacks of books, overwhelmed by the sheer number of volumes in this one aisle. What my treasured cooler is to beer, this bibliothéque, as it were, is to books. As I examine the offerings, I see a pink paper heart resting against a volume of The American Experience through Poetry. Grasping it with eager fingers, I read the verse inscribed on it:
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
My immediate reaction is anger. This coy little slut is the biggest cocktease I’ve ever encountered. Nonetheless, I have already gotten up early on a Saturday for this girl, and I am determined to get a little something in return.
“Hey,” I say, holding up the quote and turning to the continuing education student who looks at me with considerable unease. “Who left this?”
Unable to take her eyes off the adornment that graces my forehead, the perturbed student replies: “I don’t know, but I’ve seen her working at the observatory.”
“The observatory. The big telescope down at the end of Green Street.” Her confusion has turned into disgust. “You have something on your forehead.”
Without deigning to respond, I pocket the second quote and march into the men’s room. If I want my pains to bear fruit, I realize, then having a turgid phallus sketched in marker on my scalp will not garner me the respect I need to gain information. Once I have scrubbed the offensive picture into an innocuous black smudge, I examine myself in the mirror. Now that the muddying effects of last night’s alcoholic bacchanalia have begun to subside, I can see myself with disarming clarity. My eyes are bloodshot and distant and yellow crusts of mucus have collected beneath them. My hair stands every which way and has entrapped several small bits of notebook paper, some pretzel crumbs, and the disembodied head of a G.I. Joe action figure. Dry skin flakes off my colorless lips and dank sweat stains have already started to form under the sleeves of my unwashed T-shirt. The smeared remnants of my Sharpie tattoo have dribbled down my face in watery black lines. In short, I look like unfuckable shit.
I brush aside my brutal awareness for the time being and strike out for the observatory. I am on the trail of some hot tail and I will not be deterred by self-consciousness.
If the library is desolation, the observatory is a ghost town. The only person in the building’s front room is an elderly, yellow-haired lady in large faux pearls and a crinkled green sundress. She sits behind the front desk, reading a ninety-five cent paperback. When I enter, she eagerly looks up at me. She seems to welcome the human contact.
“Hello, young man. Would you like to sign up to look through the telescope?” Her voice is as sweet as honey, but its loneliness makes me wish I had a stiff drink. I can’t help wondering how many years she has left to live.
“Uh, no. I’m looking for somebody.”
“There’s nobody here but me,” she responds. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” I mutter and turn to go.
“Don’t leave without looking through the telescope!” she implores, standing up to demonstrate the ferocity of her sentiment. “There is a lot of solar activity today.”
I shrug and check my watch. It’s only 4:00. The guys at the house are probably getting up now, but I’ll stay and humor the quirky little woman. Maybe Blonde Girl Poet will show up while I’m at the telescope. The woman leads me into the main room of the observatory. It is enormous and crammed with scientific gadgets and machines. I marvel that I have never noticed this building before. At the room’s center, a small stool sits beneath the eyepiece of the most gigantic technological wonder I have ever seen. The telescope is so large that I couldn’t fit my arms around it if I tried. It is tilted straight up to the sky. I seat myself awkwardly on the stool and ask the woman what to do.
“Just look through the eyepiece and you’ll see the stars.”
I do as I’m told, and I am immediately whisked into a void, punctuated by smoldering, fiery gas balls. Comets cut across my field of sight, leaving blazing tails of residual light behind them. Novas, supernovas, red giants, galaxies. They all compete for my attention, teeming with chaotic energy. I think of the time in junior high when I had to scrape the inside of my mouth and look at my skin cells under the microscope. There is more to see than I can understand. “Dumb poet,” I can’t help thinking. “I just wanted a fuck.”
In spite of my frustration, I can’t help being impressed by the magnitude of the cosmos. If my beer cooler is stuffed with beverages, and the library is stuffed with books, then this observatory is stuffed with the universe– whatever that means. The confusion and the hangover attack my head from opposite sides and I am suddenly seized by a violent migraine. Turning away from the eyepiece, I nod heavily at the woman who stands by, eagerly watching me. As I stand up to leave, I happen to catch sight of a pink heart-shaped piece of stationery on the observatory floor. It seems to have fallen from the stool. I pick it up and read it:
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
I crumple the quote in my fist and stuff it into my pocket. My energy waning and my head pounding, I realize that my quest is not likely to prove successful. If I get back to the frat house within the hour, I’ll have time for a nap before the evening’s party at Beta Alpha Beta. Cursing all perky blonde poet girls, I leave the observatory. The pressure in my head builds with every step.
When I enter the common room, I see that most of the guys are up. Big Bad Bob is sitting on one of the new pledges and rubbing an old jockstrap in his face. A bunch of the brothers watch, beers and cameras in their hands. Marco has the football game on TV and he’s watching it with a handful of pledges. Jeff sits contentedly in a corner, flipping through a Penthouse and eating a cheeseburger. Ketchup dribbles down his chin and onto the pages of his magazine. He looks up when I come in and crows victoriously in greeting.
“Bring on the boy who balls the babe! Catch some snatch, Gabe?”
“No,” I grunt dejectedly. There are about twenty-five guys crowded into the smallish, unventilated common room, and the heat from their bodies makes me sweat. My vision starts to swim.
“D’ja bring me a beer, you queer?” Jeff jumps out of the corner and socks me playfully in the gut. I shake him off and ascend the stairs to my room, gripping the banister to keep me steady.
Old athletic gear and beer cans clutter my room, but at least there’s nothing on my bed. I just want to lie down for a bit. I look into the tangled, yellowing sheets and see that somebody has thrown up in them. The smell makes my own stomach churn and I remember that I haven’t had anything to eat or drink except for two cans of Coors. After stripping the vomit-saturated sheets from my lumpy mattress and sloughing them onto the floor, I flop into bed. I see a small pink paper on the floor and stretch to pick it up. It is a piece of stationery– the same kind I have been following all day. However, this time, the quote written on it is not attributed to anybody in particular:
“Wake up. You’re wasting your life. Open your eyes to the poetry of the world!!!”
Oh my God.
My lingering half-erection deflates out of dignity. If I’d wanted a lecture on my lifestyle, I would have phoned home. The migraine which has been pooling in my head suddenly funnels itself into a highly concentrated pustule of anger located directly between my eyes. If I’m just sloppy detritus to Blonde Girl Poet, then she’s the kind of girl who fucks sloppy detritus, which ultimately makes her worse than I am. I rip the heart in half, and then into quarters. I rip and rip, taking immense pleasure in the crisp tearing sound that the stationery gives off, until I am left with a handful of tiny pink confetti. I let the confetti fall from my hands as I close my eyes. Somewhere behind my eyelids, comets gleam with stellar magnitude.