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Jul/Aug 2003 fiction

The Exchange Student

by David S. Kaufman


 

If it seems like I am always telling my friends about people that I'm seeing again—mostly by accident—after so many years, perhaps it is because so much of my life recently has hinged upon ghosts of the past.

So many threads left split and bare. I don't understand much about the word "closure" and doubt if I ever will.

My friends like to deride me for the ghosts that follow me around, but at the same time I know that they secretly wish that they had known the assortment of adventures that I have known.

Ghosts of England, California, Maryland, and any other place I've dared to step. Some ghosts that perhaps aren't even mine. Adopted ghosts, I call them.

 

1998, O'Brien's Pub, Riverside, California

They call me "The Stephen" and I have taken to it so well that even I have referred to myself, on occasion, in the third person as well.

The Stephen. I like that. It makes me sound important. It makes me sound admired and loved. And I am all of these things—well, at least liked.

I am liked. And I like them, when I see them, which is usually late at night at O'Brien's pub where we all get really drunk, but talk about how it was when we used to get really stoned. How we used to trip out, snort coke, and yet lived into the nineties without any infectious diseases.

Then we stop telling stories for a bit and we sing karaoke. One of us will always sing a Sublime song, maybe "Santeria" or "Wrong Way," and we all feel like derelicts. We love it.

We puff out our chests and tell each other that we were part of the LA riots a few years back. Bill says that he burned down a 7-11 on Vermont and Ninth. Eric threw a Molotov cocktail into a Circuit City near USC. I supposedly broke into the Waldenbooks at Century Place and tore the covers off all the books in the home repair and collectibles section.

I thought it sounded cool at the time.

It's taken for granted that we're all lying, and that we watched the riots from our windows, scared to death, like everyone else in LA.

When Sublime is over, some girl is bound to sing a country song. If she is especially cute, then we'll all look enraptured by the beauty of her voice and wag our tails. If we don't feel like paying attention to her, then we'll start talking again, and by this time the stories all sound interesting. It's late enough that our minds are now a bit soaked, and we start to believe each other.

Last night, I told them about Valerie Dear. She is not a girl that I am seeing again years later (as perhaps you might have heard), but she was a pale and charming girl that I once knew. She was from Belgium, so her last name was two syllables. It sounded like day-are, accent on the are. Her lips were pink and her hair was blonde.

I met her in a three-floor pub in Oxford called The Brewhouse, when I was living in England for 4 years. It's the kind of college ragbag where you have to slip through several layers of people to reach the bar, and if you just stand patiently, politely waiting to progress by the natural movement of the queue, it'll never happen. You have to push. I've learned that sometimes you have no choice. You just have to push. Hard.

So I explained to my friends at O'Brien's how I pushed up to the front, and the wood of the bar smelled so strongly of ancient lager and ale that I had to start breathing through my mouth, so as not to puke. If I smelled it anywhere else but at the pub, I would have assumed it was stale urine. The Brewhouse opened hundreds of years ago, so I'm not exaggerating this part.

 

Oxford, England, 1988

My friend Todd and I got our lagers, and we hunted for a seat. We walked around in circles waiting for a table. We made the slow, dodging spiral up the three floors and then back down again, then checked the patio for a place to sit, starting the process all over again. For forty-five minutes. Up, down, and around, and I could feel my stomach churning already.

Finally, we saw a group leaving. Twelve people at a table for two—not at all unusual here. We stood so close to them to ensure getting the table that I could smell the breath of the girl closest to me. I smiled at her (I don't quite remember what she looked like except for her hair) and she blew out a stream of air so hard that it made her almond-brown bangs fly up and stay on top of her head. Her breath smelled of sweetness to me. I have always thought there is something sacred about the breath of a woman. I will remember the sweet breath of a beautiful woman before I remember her face.

I imagined myself leaning over and kissing her for a moment, as if she was my girlfriend and was expecting me to. I smiled at her.

She made believe that she didn't see me and was soon gone.

Todd and I jumped into the free seats, looking victoriously around at all the poor wandering souls, ambling around trapped inside Dante, waiting for a table to open up so they might share in my and Todd's luck.

I didn't tell my friends, now almost a crowd, at O'Brien's last night, about how that girl ignored me. I don't think I told them about her breath, either. Instead, I just told them that I was so close to her that I could smell her, and then mumbled something about the English people and deodorant.

We looked around the room. I knew it would be up to me to find us some honeys.

My friends and I at O'Brien's always call the girls "honeys" when we're telling stories.

It was up to me because Todd never spoke first. Except to me. He yelled: "Stephen."

"Todd," I replied.

"Can you hear me? It's so dang loud in here!"

I replied, "Todd, if I didn't hear you, I wouldn't have said 'Todd,' now, would I have?"

"Guess not. Look, this girl's checking you out, caddy-cornered to that table with the three Brazilians."

I explained to my friends that in Oxford, as inundated as it is with students from all over the world, we got pretty good at telling whether someone was from Brazil, Argentina, or even South Africa without even hearing them speak.

I turned my chair slightly to the right, and saw a girl reading a book. French perhaps, I thought, or maybe from Luxembourg. She was reading a book. It was Le Petit Prince, but instead of in French it was in English, The Little Prince. I knew I was right about her nationality, she must be trying to read better in English.

I told my friends that last year, when I decided to learn French, I started reading with Le Petit Prince.

I had already read The Little Prince in English, and so I quickly visited a ghost in Maryland and then was back in the U.K.

The girl looked about my age, 19, and was as blond as I think possible. Her lips were pink. She had a pointed nose, very small. She had a strapless black top on, and her shoulders were cream-colored and smooth. She wore shorts, black ones that I could just make out under the table. I don't know what kind they were. Just black.

She noticed me watching her, looked up, smiled. I could see that she had good teeth, and I thought that maybe I liked her. I raised my lager toward her and let her know that I was indeed looking at her. She smiled and looked right back at me, her smile sublime. I spoke:

"Hey, how you doin'?"

"Me? Good. You?"

She had a thick French accent, and I took pride in myself for knowing. The accent made her more beautiful, more vulnerable.

"Great," I said. "Where are you from?"

She looked at me, not understanding what I was saying. I repeated, slower, "Where-are-you-from?"

"Oh!" she said, "Brussels, Belgium. I speak the French, not of the English. I like the English. You the English? I learned in school the English going two years in school. You the English?"

"I'm the American," I said. "New York City, USA."

"Oh." She paused for a moment. "I like of the USA's too. I mean, of the Americans, I like too."

I wasn't sure what to say, but she continued, "I like most the music English. See you listen to me," and she started to sing in her Belgian accent, "Well I guess it would be nice, if I could touch you body, I know you everybody-you-not-a-got-the-body like you. You gotta have faith-a, faith-a, faith-a."

I laughed, and nodded my head, smiling at her, letting her know what a great George Michael she did, and trying to figure out how to get her to come with me to my dormitory.

She simply blushed.

At O'Brien's, I told everybody that she blushed and smiled back at me.

I introduced her to Todd, and we half-talked for the rest of the evening. By midnight the pub was closing, and we decided to go back to my dormitory room. I don't think that Valerie Dear was quite sure what I meant when I said that we should all go back to my dormitory room and party, but she did start singing the song "Party Girl" by U2, to show some concept of understanding; at least, I convince myself of this to this day.

We walked through the city. Valerie had only been in the country for a few weeks, so I pointed out some of the places that I liked the most in Oxford: The garden where penicillin was first grown. The house where the first cell was studied under a microscope. Alice's Shop, from Through the Looking Glass, still run by the real Alice's granddaughter. The branch of the tree at my school, Christ Church, where Lewis Carroll had envisioned the Cheshire Cat. I pointed out the window to C.S. Lewis' old classroom. We walked on the lawn where Churchill had made some famous speech about the "Iron Curtain," now called the War Memorial Garden.

We balanced ourselves on the self-proclaimed, "Great Wall of Oxford," my favorite ancient Roman wall in the city. We picked up a taxi in front of The Trout, a pub where there are literally hundreds of peacocks, and when you sit outside, one will always jump into your lap as you eat and drink, while you watch the punters rowing on the Thames, their muscles seamlessly pumping the oars, leaving behind a most perfect, thin wake.

At this point in the story, I told the group at O'Brien's that I planned on somehow getting back to England, that I would live there again someday. No matter what I had to do.

We got to my dorm at around two-thirty in the morning. There were still parties going on in the hallways, and Valerie Dear insisted that we take her up to the second floor. We could hear an INXS song playing, "Never Tear Us Apart." I sang along for a bit... "I, I was standing, you were there; two worlds collided—and they can never, ever tear us apart."

We didn't know that Michael Hutchence, the lead singer, would die nine years later doing unmentionable things, purposely tempting death. I can't tell you too much about that; my days of tempting death are long gone, except for my constant barrage of cigarettes, alcohol, Valium, and poetry that scares everyone into thinking that I'm going to kill myself.

Valerie Dear thought that my dorm was the best place she'd been since being on The Rock.

I told the gathering crowd at O'Brien's that we called England "The Rock." I wasn't sure if they all realized it was an island surrounded by cliffs.

Valerie Dear slid her arm around my waist as we walked up the stairs, Todd following behind. It was November 1st—a week before my 20th birthday—and I was in heaven. Due to the weather, I was also shocked by her static electricity, and it made me jump.

We got upstairs and Pat, a fellow dorm-mate whom I didn't much like, screamed my name:

"Stephen!" he screamed.

"Pat!" I screamed back.

"Who's the babe? I thought you were on the lockdown from women after you ignored your pager going off that night, when you were up 'talking' all night with that beached whale Judy from the ER!"

"Shut up Pat," I replied. "First of all, she wasn't fat, just big-boned, second of all, we were just talking, and thirdly, I didn't hear the pager go off. So shut the fuck up."

Pat said, "And, that's why you missed the C-Section, and I had to scrub in for you, even though I'd only done one, and you'd done about 40 a week for the last two years, mon frer?"

I ignored him. "Speaking of French," I replied instead, "this is Valerie Dear from Brussels. She doesn't speak English all that well, but she does one hell of a George Michael impersonation."

"Nice to meet you. I'm Pat," he said, hand outstretched.

I could tell already that he wanted to steal her from me. My pulse quickened, and I could feel heat in my temples. If I closed my eyes for a second, if I let down my offenses for a moment, he would take her from me. I could feel it. He would flirt, make her want him, and she would be his. Happens every time, just like in a fish tank. The big fish eat the small fish. At a dormitory party, the "cool" guys will do anything they can to eat up the "losers." I like to call this the "Dorm Ritual Let-It-Rain Females" dance. To this day, I'm not sure what side I really was ever on, the cool guys or the losers.

Pat the Flirter invited us into his dorm room to drink tequila. Valerie looked at me with her huge brown eyes, pleading with me to let her go, as if she was accountable to me. I liked it. Power. My mind started racing.

Pat poured a single shot of tequila and handed it to me. I drank it. Tequila is always a tough play for me. I like the taste, but even being the heavy drinker that I am, it makes me feel like I'm about to throw up. I felt it go down without making my stomach heave, and relaxed a bit, knowing that I wouldn't puke.

Her eyes should be blue, shouldn't they? Her hair is as yellow as a sunflower; why are her eyes so dark? Her eyes, they're popping out of her head like a trout. Isn't that the name of that pub? No, the Peacock. No, the Rainbow. No, it is The Trout, isn't it?

I watched Valerie Dear, Todd, and Pat all toast the next shot, leaving me out. Why did he make me do my shot alone, while they're all doing theirs together, one small happy family? He's already discounting me as a threat. She's mine. I'll take advantage of the situation if I have to. I'll get her so drunk that she'll stay with me no matter what. Seventeen shots, I'll see to it that she takes seventeen shots, just like Dylan Thomas, exactly 30 years ago this week.

I grabbed the bottle of Cuervo Gold from Pat, and poured a shot into every shot glass that I could scavenge from his room. He collected them, so it wasn't very difficult.

Valerie and I toasted. "To George Michael and to having faith," I said.

Another shot. Another. And another, and Valerie Dear toasted, "To friends that are new friends, and to this dorm that is the English dorm, and to America, and to this bottle that is a bottle of the tequila!" she said—barely. She added, "Of which of I never have had of the liquor."

I don't know if she really had seventeen shots, but I still told the crowd at O'Brien's that she definitely did seventeen of them.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

She said very slowly, "I drink of the coffee and how-do-you-say as long of time, what I mean is, as since I have been on your 'Rock'" (she yelled that word, laughing), "I drink of tea, but not of the liquor."

I explained to my friends, in case they didn't understand my accent, that she had never drunk hard liquor before.

Great, what's next? "Well, do you like it so far?" I asked.

"What I like is that to be for you to dance a dance with me. I like very much the dancing."

She put her arms around me, and I felt like a king when I saw Pat looking on jealously. Valerie Dear started to dance, working us to a sweat. We danced through the next three songs on the stereo. The Pet Shop Boys, A-Ha, and some song droning on and on about how we were living in America and heading for the nineties. I thought for a moment about how I was not in America. I felt the tequila mix with the lager in my stomach. I felt the first real heat wave of drunkenness possess me. Although I felt good, I knew that it would not last. I'd be puking alone, hunched over the small community toilet.

I stopped at this point in my story at O'Brien's to clarify that I hadn't puked from being too drunk since 1990, eight years ago. My friends nodded their heads and we toasted our next kamikaze shooter to Valerie Dear, the sexy exchange student.

I kept dancing with Valerie Dear so that she would keep drinking the seventeen shots of tequila. I had already lost count of what number she was on. I was careful and had only had three so far. Todd had started dancing with us by now, but I never got jealous of Todd. I dominated him. He could never, or would never, steal a girl from me. Todd gave off a vibe that made him harmless, and women don't like harmless.

They want fear.

Again I stopped the story to remark to the crowd how I'd grown on this subject and no longer saw women simply as objects. Although they still hate the harmless ones, don't they?

As time passed, I noticed a glaze appear on Valerie Dear's eyes. It looked like someone had taken Vaseline and applied it directly to her eyeballs. As I worked at the hospital, I knew this look well. I shuddered, looking to make sure that no one was watching me shiver.

A slow song came on, "Martha's Harbour," by All About Eve, and she pressed herself against me. I knew she was mine, and I could feel her already. I imagined her and I alone, in my room... but instead we just danced. I could smell her breath. She was breathing almost directly into my mouth. The smell of tequila was strong. She looked into my eyes and stuck her tongue out at me. I stuck out my tongue and licked hers. She purred, and we kissed. I could taste her, not just her mouth, but her entire body.

Something's wrong, I thought. Her mouth wasn't as wet as it should have been, and I knew she was drunk. But her eyes, her Vaseline eyes. Feeling my tongue against hers, I was reminded of my days as a stoner. It felt like cottonmouth. I had never tasted anyone else's cottonmouth. Her tongue felt like a cat's, like sandpaper. That's why she purred; she's an alley cat. How many lives is she on?

She looked straight into my eyes, and she said my name. I'll never forget what she said. She said, "The Stephen." It was the first time I had heard this, the beginning of my nickname.

At this point in the story, the gang at O'Brien's started to laugh. They were really paying attention. No one quite knew how my nickname had started.

One thing bothered me quite a bit though; Valerie Dear's purring at me was the only part of the story that my friends didn't believe. I didn't understand why.

I got up to order a pitcher when my name was called to sing.

"The Stephen, you're up next."

I went up and sang the song "She's Leaving Home," by the Beatles.

Next was a bunch of ugly girls singing a man-hating country song. We all looked at each other, and I knew it was okay for me to go on.

Valerie Dear looked up at me with those Vaseline eyes and repeated herself.

"The Stephen. Does the tequila make feel you like you are of the death? I think this is the death."

I answered, "You're just drunk. Tequila is a dangerous poison, and this is your first time. Don't worry." Besides, French people always relate strong emotion to death, don't they? What do they call an orgasm? My brother told me... le petit mort. A little death.

"I need of the toilet—that is where I want you shall to take me now," she said. She was leaning into me, and I was afraid she would fall if I let her walk by herself. Sadistically, I took a step back anyway, to see if she could stand on her own or if she would fall. She stood.

"I'll take you there and wait for you," I said. I don't want anyone in the dorm to find her alone, I thought.

We got to the bathroom, and she locked the door behind her. I waited, envisioning what wasn't revealed on the other side of that door. I was wondering if she and I would fall in love when I heard the thump. I knocked on the bathroom door.

"Valerie?"

No answer. Another thud, louder. I checked the door, but found what I already knew; it was locked. Todd walked up, grinning.

"Stephen, is she in the bathroom?"

"Yeah," I replied, "but something's wrong. I just heard a thud."

"A thud?"

"Yeah, a fucking—no, two thuds actually."

"What kind of thuds?" he said.

"How the hell should I know?, a thud, a thud, a thud!" I screamed "thud" the last time I said it.

Todd tried to open the door, and I hit his hand away. "What do you think you're doing? I'll deal with this bitch." I felt the tequila, stalking me like a cat.

I took out a credit card, and tried to unlock the door, because I had seen it in the movies. It didn't work. I took out my keys, and with a simple twist (of fate? of luck?) my own dorm room key opened the door.

I looked into the room, and Valerie Dear was on the floor next to the toilet bowl. Her shirt was still on, but her panties were around her ankles. She had passed out and fallen over while going to the bathroom.

Todd peered in to get a better view of Valerie Dear.

I screamed at him, "Now what are you doing, you pervert? Get away! Can't you see we've got a problem? Just leave me alone, okay?"

Todd mumbled "Sorry" under his breath and walked toward Pat's room.

I leaned over to Bill and Eric at O'Brien's and said, "Remind me next time to tell you the story of Todd's suicide."

I went into the bathroom and locked the door. I got on my knees and pulled up her panties. She was shaved. I tried picking her up, but she felt heavier than I would have guessed, being so tiny. It was like dead weight, and although she looked lifeless, I could tell that she was still breathing, so I wasn't too worried.

I picked her up, straining myself, and carried her down to my dorm room, number eighteen. By this time a little crowd had gathered, thanks to my screaming at Todd, and I could hear the sneers of some of my dorm-dwellers. They were joking about date rape, and giving me words of advice of how to best make use of the situation, urging me to take advantage of this unknown girl.

Me?

Soon enough we got to my room. My arms hurt, I didn't remember ever actually carrying a person so far. Thank goodness she was small. My back was killing me. I placed her on my bed.

I wasn't sure if she was just drunk, or if she was having some reaction to alcohol.

I had heard once of a girl who gotten drunk for the first time at a shopping mall in DC, who had a reaction to beer and threw herself off the third floor of the parking structure. Her brain splattered. They say that if you look you can see the outline of the blood to this very day.

Laughing, I told the crowd at O'Brien's, "It's true. I've seen it myself, you can see all this dark red, and if you look at it long enough it starts looking like a person. I used to live down the street from that mall in Bethesda, Maryland."

By five in the morning she was still lying there, her breathing labored, and I was getting impatient.

Now I'm not going to lie about this. My mind could not dismiss all the comments made about taking advantage of her, and I struggled with the temptation for a second, not knowing what to do. Wouldn't everyone else in the dorm do something if they were me?

I say that I struggled with the temptation for a second.

And then happily gave myself over to it.

I got up in her face and smacked her a few times to see if she would wake up.

I'm not actually going to touch her; I'm just going to make believe. Make believe with my fingers.

I slipped my fingers inside of her shorts and lifted her up a bit so I could pull down her shorts and panties smoothly. I stared at her, all of her. Her blond hair looked white. She looked like an albino.

I parted her legs and stared. She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen up to this point. I was empowered by her helplessness, fascinated by her silence, and enraged at her for being a temptress—just her act of being there, helpless.

"I am God," I whispered. I wished that she could have heard me.

After looking some more, I pulled up her panties and shorts. Anyone else in the Goddamn dorm would have fucked her already. It's what we're supposed to do.

I don't know if it was fear or moral obligation that kept me from doing more. I like to think it was the latter.

To the crowd at O'Brien's I made it seem a lot dirtier than it actually was. Without actually saying it, I implied that I did more than just watch her. My evasion of their questions, especially Eric's, confirmed to them that I had date-raped her.

I lied down on the floor and tried to wish myself away. I felt myself sinking, spinning like a top into the floor, below the floor, underground.

When I was finally about to succumb to the tequila sleep, I heard her stir. I stopped breathing, kept every muscle from moving. Now I was scared. She would wake up and know exactly what I had done.

The crowd at O'Brien's again tried to get me to elaborate, tell them "what I had done." I smiled and drank another kamikaze and sang a few bars from the song "Killer Queen," mimicking Freddy Mercury's voice exactly.

Valerie Dear called out a name. I think she said "Jack" or "Jacques" or something like that. Her hand flayed out from the bed. Her fingers tightened into a ball and flayed again, over and over. It was like watching Dennis Hopper play Frank in "Blue Velvet," and here was my Hopper and Isabella Rossalini together as one person. She sounded like she was gasping for breath, like I sometimes do when I wake from my nightmares.

"The Stephen?" she asked, gasping.

"Yes, sweetheart?" I said.

"I need a drink to drink someone now. Please, drink."

She sounded like Scarlet O'Hara, her speech so full of breath that it sounded like she was acting. The way Gene Kelly sings. "You are my lucky star, I'm lucky where you are... you've opened heaven's portal here on earth for this poor mortal..."

I got up—barely—and opened my tiny refrigerator. The only thing in it was a six-pack of lager. I took out a can and popped the top. I went to her and held up her head. I tilted the beer for her as she tilted her head back and drank the entire twenty ounces in one drink.

I told the gang at O'Brien's how a pint is twenty ounces in England instead of sixteen. They all made believe that they already knew this.

As I laid her head back, her mouth filled up with foam from the beer. I thought I was going to be sick, and I started to throw her a shirt from the floor for her to wipe it off. At the same moment I realized that it wasn't foam, but vomit. I quickly turned her over to let the puke come out, and I thought about how nasty my sheets were going to be the next day and about how I didn't have any 25 pence pieces to do laundry with.

Through my thoughts I could hear her sucking her vomit into her lungs, sounding like an old vacuum cleaner on its last carpet. Why the fuck doesn't she just spit it out?

I turned her face toward me and I held my breath while sticking my fingers into her mouth. I pushed some of the vomit out. It was like glue made from tequila. It smelled only of the liquor. There was no food coming out. How did the tequila get so thick?

I held back my lurching urge to throw up and swept more of the viscous fluid from her mouth. I thought it worked because she was no longer gasping for air. I put her head back in place and smacked her face a few times.

"Valerie? Valerie? Can you hear me? Cut this shit out," I yelled.

It was at this point that I realized she hadn't been breathing at all.

I sized her up, to make sure that all her clothes looked straight and untouched. The hospital that I worked at was an eight-minute walk, a four-minute run. I grabbed her, fireman style, and I slipped out the back exit in the hallway by my room. It was November, and the fog was nearly impenetrable. There was no way that I could drive through it; running was the only option. An ambulance would take an hour to get through the single winding mile to the dorm. I felt my way in the fog, going by instinct, having walked this path at least a thousand times before. I had never felt the fog so thick. It seemed like I was back in the operating room wearing my surgical mask, struggling to get enough breath, wondering if it was only me who felt that way every time they assisted on an operation.

I picked up speed. Faster and faster, and I was the wind. Suddenly I hit something hard and fell backwards. I hung on the edge of balance for a moment, and then Valerie's weight pushed me over and my back hit the ground.

She was on top of me.

I felt everything fade out, as I finally felt the horrible pain of having run straight into a tree in the fog. This was now the second time in one year that I had run head-on into a tree.

I explained to the gang at O'Brien's that the first time was during the windstorm that killed the lead actor of the hit BBC show "Allo Allo," as he drove behind a truck in Oxford, which happened to have a rather large piece of wood on it. The wind blew the timber right off the truck and through his windshield. Then through his head.

I was stuck on the ground, and somehow I knew that her only chance for survival was for me to get the hell up and take her to Judy, the big-boned girl who worked in the ER. Judy would save her, as she had tried to save me from boredom the night that I ignored my pager to do a C-Section.

At this point in the story, I made sure to emphasize again to my friends at O'Brien's that Judy was not fat by any stretch of the imagination; she was merely big-boned. They didn't buy it.

I wanted desperately to get up; I really did. However, I slipped in and out of a dream instead.

I was trapped in the movie "Das Boot," and the captain of the doomed U-Boat was telling me that it didn't matter how hard I tried, Valerie would never sleep with me. He told me that she would never get out of the submarine alive. Then I kept hearing the submarine joints, under so much pressure, as it sank deeper and deeper into the ocean depths.

I don't know what I really heard. Perhaps it was Valerie gasping for breath. Either way, I heard the bolts coming loose. Then I saw the crew of the boat docked in apparent safety. The end of the movie. Thank God, I can wake up now! The crew and I got out of the U-Boat into what we thought would be a hero's welcome, but instead they were shooting at us. I saw the captain, lying dead in his blood, gasping for breath. I felt a bullet pierce my stomach. I felt the blood in my intestines bursting up to my head and pouring into my mouth.

Then I returned to Oxford and felt that the blood was actually Valerie's vomit dripping into my mouth.

I spit some of it out, swallowed what I couldn't quickly spit out, and stood up.

I collected her into my arms and raced toward the red light atop the radio tower that I knew was directly behind the hospital. It was the only landmark I could see. I ran.

I don't know how long it took, but we reached the emergency room before sunrise. I hurdled directly to the admissions counter when I saw that Judy was there. Judy grabbed Valerie from me, asking if I was okay. I told her I was fine, and a crowd of technicians gathered around my girl. I told them that I had just found out that she had never gotten drunk before, and that she couldn't speak English. I told them that she could do one hell of a George Michael impression, just wait until she's up.

At first, they tried to talk her back to life. Then they tried to yell her back to life, slap her back to life, drug her back to life, and finally, to shock her back to life. Nothing seemed to do the trick, and I knew she'd be rushed up to surgery. I tried to remember who was on call tonight. I was sure it wasn't me.

 

1998, O'Brien's Pub, Riverside, California

At this point in the story, the gang at O'Brien's quietly asked me if she was dead. I told them that yes, she had died.

They asked me whom the hospital called to let know, and I told them that I wasn't sure. I told them that I think she had a Belgian driver's license on her. I was pretty sure that at some point during the evening she had shown me the picture, a picture with blonde hair and full pink lips. There were a few other questions that I can't remember right now.

They asked me how I took it, and how it affected me in the long run. They were all more serious than usual, it was creeping me out.

I told them all I could remember. I thought about the seventeen shots of tequila that I made her drink. I wondered who the hell Jack or Jacques was. I wondered if she had known that I pulled her panties down. I wanted to know if she could have told me in French what my dream had meant. I thought about the long discussions we could have had about Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince. I wanted to know if she could have fallen in love with me had she not died. I wanted to know why I killed her. I wanted to know why I had not killed myself. I wanted to know if there was a God, and what now would happen to me when I died? Would she be there, forever accusing me, her panties down around her ankles, her vomit dripping in my mouth?

I wanted to know if I had become a better person over the years. I hoped that I had. The gang at O'Brien's told me that I was the best guy they knew, the nicest guy. They promised me that it wasn't my fault.

I knew they were lying.

 

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