AFTER THE BOYS HAD TAKEN THEIR FLUSHED faces and the lingering spirits of their breath down the steps and back to the car, we would stay up and watch the black-and-white films we had made, projected against the gray cement of the basement wall.
It was as if the night were only just now starting, at one or two in the morning, and we were suddenly entirely ourselves. The projector hummed and clacked. The focus was primitive, and we dealt with it by moving the entire apparatus forward or backwards on its folding chair.
The outside shots were often overexposed. Sometimes we watched these films projected against a mirror that hung near the laundry room door. Sometimes against a sheet.
Sometimes I would read a novel out loud while we went through every reel, over and over. Once it was The Sheltering Sky. Once The Trial. And all the while fields flashed by, birds flew, fires burned, bicycles raced past, eyes blinked and mouths smiled. Image after image made of light.
This would end around nine or ten in the morning and then we would go outside, sleepless and energized, to walk beside the stone colored river. To walk along the trails. Sometimes we would shoot while we walked. Stills, super eight, Polaroids. Polaroids, she said, said everything. Their form alone. Their very being. The subject of the photograph itself was irrelevant. It was how it came to be. We filmed Polaroids as they developed. Pulling their plastic genius into the silent eloquent light.
And we never talked about the boys, once they were gone. We talked about the fastest way to get through school. You can, in tenth grade, graduate. You can. You do not even need perfect grades, just mediocre grades in upper level courses. But what would we do then? What would we do then? I asked. She just shook her head and smirked at me.
Stand over there, she said, pointing to a field of Queen Anne's lace. Go into the middle of it. Kneel. Stand. Stand with your head turned. Take off your coat. Put it back on. Do that thing with your arms where they look like they spin all the way around in front of you. Good.
We didn't even think to show them the films. We didn't even film them. We didn't even give them books to read. We didn't even talk in the same tone of voice to them or when they were around. We said, come over. Or we said, we'll meet you. We said, we'll be over later. We didn't care what they did. We didn't care where they were when they weren't around. Disinterest sometimes made it necessary to terminate and replace. There was always another boy. Lying on the couch, sitting in the movie theater, or in the car. With the clothes they wore, with the seven day stubble, with stereo equipment and various talents, or interests gleaned from television. There was always another with his own "identity," immediate and plastic like a Polaroid. What exactly they provided during that time I can no longer remember.
I can remember the silent lips parting and the gray smoke drifting out. I can remember a shot, several seconds on the reel, of a girl skidding across the asphalt on her shin, grinning from the adrenaline before she took the skateboard up the halfpipe again. I can remember the shot of her lying in the grass laughing, her face wide and bright.
Run. And while you run, take off your clothes, till you are naked when you reach that tree, and then duck down in the grass to make it look like you were swallowed up by the earth. Good.
When the boys had taken their soft skin and their swollen mouths away we would walk outside in the dark. We would walk through the empty neighborhoods shining beneath the streetlights. Until we reached the abandoned downtown. The parking lots beneath the constellations. The tall buildings cutout against the black sky. The cool air. The expanse of concrete. This is how we walked then. In an enormous loop that lead back to the pools and gardens and fountains of the west side. And we swam behind our neighbor's houses, our quiet laughter drowned out by the sounds of crickets. We could smell the grass and the chlorine. Our breasts were weightless in the water. Like they weren't even there.
You can finish college at twenty. You can. You don't even need good grades. Just mediocre grades. You can finish at nineteen if you take twenty-four credits a semester. Then you're done. And you can go to graduate school then. You can finish grad school at twenty-two. You can have your Ph.D. by twenty-three. You can. You simply can. You can have at least three or four books written by then. You can be working for the Associated Press. You can study at a conservatory. You can sell guns. You can work in an orphanage. Smuggle spice out of the East.
We would make it home in those last crepuscular hours and hunch over the sink taking long draughts from the tap. We would sleep side by side on the floor in long white v-neck T-shirts. Our eyes moving back and forth beneath their lids. Our eyelashes resting against the tops of our cheekbones. Our mouths open, sucking in the night.
We slept this way until we saw how the boys were coming into finer focus. The boys pressed their bodies against our jeans in hayfields behind the monastery at night. And we saw more than their utility; we saw how they could be made beautiful.
Inside the monastery basement, white candles burned for the dead, and outside in the fields the boys were ghostly images whose fascination lay in their unfolding and hardening form. But they were as yet interchangeable. Your fist closed around one just about the same as any another. And only one or two required further study, or became unique, sentimental items in their familiarity. Became desired. And once desired, ruined our sleep. Ruined our sleepless wandering.
It was like this in East Berlin, she'd said about the boys. She'd been in Berlin for three months studying art. The Wall was still standing way way back then and she'd written her name on it.
She said there was the same brand of coffee on the shelf wherever you went. The same brand of aspirin. You couldn't get exactly the taste you wanted, but then you got used to whatever was there, and you liked it, no matter how crummy it was. No matter how weak it was. They're not exactly Polaroids, she corrected me. They're like the coffee and the aspirin you buy in eastern Europe, She said. You needed it to stay awake, or not feel pain, and if it wasn't working you just had more. They're like that.
Don't move, she said, in the grass outside the monastery. Don't move at all. It looks like you're a statue. It looks like you're a monument. You're a statue of the virgin skater. The great fallen tomboy. And she laughed. We'll show them this film, she said. We'll have the coffee and the aspirin over for movies. I should shoot you from the back, she said, as I walk away. I should shoot this on nitrate film, so it will burn up if we leave it in the sun!
They sat and watched the films with us in the dark basement; the films of the Polaroids developing, and the overexposed films, and the statue, and the girl swallowed by the earth. Their faces were luminescent. Reflections of images passed over them like the shadows of clouds moving over the land.
After the reels were done and our eyes had adjusted, we didn't turn on the lights. We didn't ask them what they thought. We didn't offer them a drink. We didn't kiss. Or feel them. We just sat there in the dark.
That was a good night, she'd said about it. In retrospect, it seems you should have slept with one of them. It seems we should have done something other than rewind the films. Maybe we should bring them on a walk next time. Maybe we should bring them swimming.
And then we slept on the couch in our clothes. Our long hair braided together on one side; blond, black, blond, black, blond. The tiny pale hairs on our cheeks nearly touching. And just before unconsciousness I could hear how her breathing was like her voice, how her throat held her voice and was full of sound and meaning, even as she quietly exhaled.
You can leave and never come back. You can stop speaking entirely and carry a little chalkboard with you on a rope around your neck. She laughed. Because you can see how everything here is something other than what it is, can't you? Every blade of grass, every word, every inflection. Certainly you can see that now, she said. You can see that silence is the whiteness of the sheet in the basement. And that we are waiting.
Waiting and waiting, we said in unison and I nodded.
She said, right now it's as bright as heaven. It's as clear as night. The music of her voice carried as she spoke, like a little song, and I stopped walking to light my cigarette.
This whole beautiful world, she said, tears running down her face at last, as she grabbed the collar of my shirt, is a lie.
"Waking" was originally published in Cara Hoffman's short story collection entitled: "The Wedding and Other Stories"