Man In Motion
This story by Matt Sailor is at once painful and hilarious, as it alternates from realtime realism detailing the beating, healing, and attempting to move on of a hate crime victim, and pseudo-academic analysis of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. You can never really get that image of Rob Lowe “playing” the saxophone out of your head, can you?
“All my characters die in the end. I’d like to write something about the meaning of life for a change.”
— Kevin Dolenz, as played by Andrew McCarthy in St. Elmo’s Fire
Rob Lowe speaks to me in a whisper. He holds a cold cloth to my forehead, wringing it out into a pail and then dampening it again in a dish of water and ice.
“Where did you get the ice in the middle of summer,” I ask, knowing that none of the lakes are frozen, how expensive it must be to have it shipped all that way. Wondering if we can afford it.
“Shhhh,” he says, putting his lips so closely against my ear that I can feel them touching the tiny hairs that grow on the lobes. “Eat some cobbler,” he says. Apple, he feeds it to me bite by bite with a metal spoon, with cold cream that he’s skimmed off the top of the milk just that morning. He must have chilled it on the ice.
“You need to get some rest,” he says, and then he steps back, tosses a leather jacket on the limb of a tree that is growing from the middle of the room. From behind his back, he pulls a saxophone, and then he begins to play — the music is his breath. It rises out of his chest and moves through the horn, pushed out by the depression of keys, and when it vibrates against the hairs in my ear, it is the same sensation as when his mouth was just inches from it. As long as I can hear the sound, it is just like he is kissing me.
On television, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie are talking about hunger, with a capital H. This is back when only Michael’s glove is white. There is a sneak preview of their new song. Entertainment Tonight.
I hold a glass full of melting ice against my eye, which is swollen shut, with bruises in bloom, and I think, “None of you are, by any measure, the world.”
“Huh?” This is the woman sitting two stools down at the bar, to me. Apparently, I have spoken out loud. She is staring at me, and I’m not sure why until I remember my face.
“This much is free. Keep staring, and I’ll charge admission.”
I put my face on the bar, throbbing against the wood.
They walk toward the camera, all arm in arm, with their graduation gowns in various states of disrepair and unkemptness. They are walking toward the camera, and the camera is us, so they are walking towards us, but only in a sense. Really, they are walking toward the bar where they meet every night, where the bartender teases them about paying their tab but doesn’t insist on it, where the tablecloths are checked red and white and the peanuts come in wooden bowls and the beer comes in big glass mugs, where they can recite for you the graffiti in the bathroom with their eyes closed. This is their place. (That is something that I’ve always wanted. My own Cheers. I had it once, just briefly, as a grad student. It didn’t last). But they are walking toward us, and you want to run to them, as Pepe Le Pew would run across a field of flowers, because they are young and they are beautiful, they are everything you have always wanted to be and already are not.
What these beautiful people walking always toward you but never reaching you will soon learn is that the world is a terrifying place. St. Elmo’s Fire is the pinnacle of the post-college malaise subgrene, the ultimate purveyor of the kind of “quarter-life-crisis” sentimentality running rampant in the films of the era. It makes sense. If you’re a middle class white person in the United States, particularly during the Reagan years, this is the one time in your life that amounts to any real danger. Make no mistake: for all his outrage, for all his brooding in alleys about love and flirting with prostitutes, Andrew McCarthy will get an internship at GQ and retire with thirty years as a senior copyeditor under his belt. As much as it breaks my heart to say it, even Rob Lowe, muscles rippling beneath that pink scarf of his, stroking my face with this musician’s hands, is a mechanic now, will charge you too much for parts and labor and then laugh at you that night over beers. They will, all of them, be fine.
In the terminal at JFK, I sit at a bar, a Houlihan’s, to be specific. I am waiting, but there is nothing particular to wait for. Nobody knows I am in the airport. Nobody knows I am back in New York. Nobody knows I am in America. Although they might assume so, nobody knows, in point of fact, that I am alive. I am drinking a Scotch on the rocks, and since I haven’t asked for a particular brand of Scotch (have in fact asked for the cheapest brand available so as to be certain that I can afford it), the smoky flavor of the liquor has all the artificiality of a seasoned potato chip. It is not Scotch I am drinking, really, but some neutral spirit colored with artificial coloring and flavored with artificial flavors. It is as much a product of Scotland as a bag of “Bar-B-Q” Fritos are a product of Memphis, Tennessee. It tastes like Scope, if Scope were to introduce a new flavor: Charcoal Briquette.
They show The Breakfast Club on the plane back from Czechoslovakia. I’ve seen it once before. When the movie begins, I’m in the lavatory changing the bandages on my face. I have not seen my face since before the beating. In the hospital, they wouldn’t show me a mirror. I asked them. I asked them almost constantly, as soon as I could speak. They wouldn’t agree to it. It was all catheters and bedpans for me, anyway, so I didn’t have the opportunity to sneak a glance in the bathroom, either.
Someone is pounding on the door — it took me a long time to lower myself onto the urinal, as the pain in my abdomen is considerable, so maybe they have become impatient.
“Please stop,” I say to the door, to the man through the door as I pull myself up, using the tiny stainless steel sink for leverage. I make it onto my feet, and then I am in the mirror, my face covered completely on the left side with thick gauze, like a half-hearted invisible man. It is strange that I notice the gauze first, since my nose looks like an exploded tomato covered in purple mold, since every one of the capillaries in my right eye is burst, since there is a gash across my forehead worked over with dozens of Frankenstein stitches, since there is a chunk of hair about the size of my palm missing from my left temple, since one of my lateral incisors is missing, since my lips are busted, swollen like a ripe peach, since my face is reticulated with cuts and scratches, a roadmap of broken skin. When I peel back the gauze, I see where the real damage has been done — all of the skin purple, swelling, huge gashes crusted over with blood.
The man is pounding on the door again.
“Please stop,” I say, but not because I think he can hear me, or because I believe that he will. He will never stop. I lower myself onto the floor of the airplane, my back to the door. (Is it a floor, on an airplane? Thousands of feet above the ground, can we call it that? Where am I, then? Am I anywhere?) As the man pounds and kicks, I feel the full force of each blow in my face, throbbing in time with my heartbeats.
Prague, at least, is beautiful in Spring.
The first time I saw The Breakfast Club, I had a response that, at the time, seemed to me to be the only possible reaction.
“What garbage,” I said to my friend, Rollo, as we walked out of the theater in Grand Rapids. “How does Ally Sheedy end up with that meathead bully?”
Rollo, disinterested, only shrugged. “I dunno, it’s just a movie, man.”
“But what a romantic cliché — put on some lipstick and a pink ribbon, and now you’re ready for what you’ve really wanted all along, a good pounding.”
“I liked the janitor.”
“The movie’s not about the janitor, Rollo. What bourgeois, garbage — the perfect picture of suburbia, where you check one of five boxes and then pair up while a Kajagoogoo song plays in the background.”
“I think that was Simple Minds.”
“Oh, you get the point,” I said, and Rollo and I went to get a beer at our regular place.
That’s the way I still feel — romantic fairy tale, simplistic view of human nature, really flexing my humanities degrees.
Watching it on the plane, it was different. It was easy. It was quick. I laughed when they danced on the balcony. Judd Nelson’s lips looked moist and pert. It made me forget.
Rob Lowe is whispering in my ear. The bottom half of him is a statue in a broad plaza — tiles in concentric octagons, old-world splendor. White lime crumbles off at his waist, as he strains and shifts his spine against the confines of the architecture; he is one of four figures surrounding a huge fountain. He is holding me up in his arms. One is stone, the other is flesh — but I don’t feel the flesh, I feel his leather jacket, real leather, worn from years of use. I feel his breath in my ear.
“This is for you,” he says. In another hand (I don’t know where this one is coming from, if he is using both to hold me) he produces a blue plastic case, like a Dictaphone, hanging from a beige plastic lanyard. He uses two more hands (where are they coming from) to hang it from my neck. I feel the weight of it, the considerable weight of it, against my chest.
“Play number three,” he says, and he is on a horse now, and the horse is stone, but even though the horse is stone, the horse is moving, and when it moves, white powder sprinkles down from its joints like dandruff. And now the horse is galloping at full speed, but all along I am in his arms, and all along I am looking into his eyes, and all along he is looking into mine, and his pulsate, they shine — his eyes are an ocean beneath a sun.
Maybe they, it occurs to me, in their graduation gowns, with their decent enough jobs and their strong cheekbones and their sizable record collections, are the world. Maybe it is the rest of us who are left outside, noses pressed to the glass like urchins in a Dickens book while they sip at their beers, do their secret handshakes, write down numbers on their hands in case they decide they need a good time.
By the time the bartender says “Last call,” he does not yell it the way you do in a crowded bar, elongating the vowels so he’ll be heard over the juke box blaring and the rumbling stomach of the ambient conversation, because by now it is 4:00 a.m. The bar is empty except for me. The last red eye has come in from Albuquerque, and they are buffing the floors and shutting off the lights. So he only has to lean over, touch me on the shoulder and say, “Last call.” I haven’t been sleeping, but I have been resting my face against my arms — a bad idea, because my wounds are throbbing, and I can feel blood dripping along the edges of the bandages from where I’ve been pressing against the scabs. I look up, and this is the first time I notice the bartender, who is young, trim, handsome, and obviously gay.
“Do you have somewhere to go?” he says.
“I do now,” I say.
He smiles. His eyes are brown, but he’ll do.
I left America a week after Harrison’s funeral. I could tell you that I planned it, that I’d been working up to it for months. And in one sense, I had: it wasn’t easy to travel to a Soviet satellite in 1986. The paperwork, the applications for funding, they had been in the works for a long time. But I hadn’t wanted to go until I stood in that depressing funeral home in Lansing, watching the dust collect on cloth flowers in their copper pots, watching from the corner as his father eulogized a son he hadn’t spoken to in more than five years as if they’d been playing touch football in the backyard the week before.
I am relieved, at first, to see that the casket is closed. I remember Harrison’s cheeks red in the early snow of Michigan autumn; I remember stroking the skin of his arms; I remember his eyes, like something bright crystallizing beneath the earth. I don’t want to see him thin, pale, covered in KS lesions, with nothing behind his eyes but meat. But then I hear his father talking about how “strong” Harrison was, how “tough,” and when I hear the words “car crash” I see what’s happening. I want to scream.
“It’s a terrible thing,” a kid with a stupid-looking mustache says to me afterward. As I look over, I realize this is Harrison’s brother. Jim, Tom. I can’t remember. “How did you know him,” he asks.
“Me? From fucking him, mostly.” Technically, this isn’t true. Harrison stopped me before it ever went too far. We barely kissed. Sitting on the lavatory floor, thousands of feet above the ocean, I wish that we had. That I were with him. I would rather be in a box, would rather be in the ground. In any event, Moe punched me in the face, and when I reached up to hold my nose, he kneed me in the stomach.
The family doesn’t ask me to leave so much as Tim and his father pick me up by the collar — just like in a movie, I’m not even making that up — and throw me down the stairs. I cut my lip on the way down and spit blood into the grass. I yell something at them, but I don’t remember what. It doesn’t matter. All they say back to me is “faggot.”
The theater is dark. I buy a tub of popcorn, but as soon as I take a bite I regret it: I can’t bite into so much as a kernel without pain pulsing through every nerve in my face. St. Elmo’s Fire begins with that kind of maudlin piano soundtrack so inescapable in the ‘80s — the attempt to make you nostalgic before you have even experienced the object of nostalgia. I don’t know what made me walk into the theater, except that I didn’t want to figure anything out, that I wanted my self gone, not to think, not to feel — oblivion. I wanted Rob Lowe, and there he was, a ridiculous earring in the shape of a feather dangling from one ear (dead giveaway; he was clearly fair game).
When he is onscreen, I begin to feel safe. I want to bite his chin, to feel his sweat dampen the hair on my chest, to yell out as his fingernails pull me by the hair and scratch at my beard. I want him over me and under me and inside of me, and it’s the only thing that I want. He’s dating this woman, Mare Winningham, who plays this dowdy old character in pearls and cardigans with huge glasses and lipstick the same bright pink shade as a little girl’s pencil case. His wife, some terrible white trash caricature, is even worse, but at least she can match him blow by blow. Elsewhere, much is made of Andrew McCarthy’s character being gay, madly in love with Judd Nelson, who was grown up since The Breakfast Club, using his experience as a dullard and a thug to secure himself a position in the GOP. It’s nonsense, of course, and I resent the implication. McCarthy is simply pining for Ally Sheedy — even I’m not sure if I can blame him. Rob Lowe, however. There is something about him. I know it. He’s one of us.
I love Rob Lowe because his eyes look like Harrison’s eyes. When do I realize this? Just now. While writing it.
I don’t watch The Breakfast Club on the plane — not really. Or, perhaps I should say, I watch it, but I don’t listen to it. Instead, I am listening to a mix tape that the nurse in the hospital handed to me before helping me into the backseat of a car bound for the Prague airport. In fact, she handed me an entire tape player, some sort of cheap Soviet Walkman rip-off, an “Amfiton mini stereo,” a tank of a machine that hung around the neck from a plastic strap, with headphones that look like a doctor’s stethoscope.
“Something to occupy you during the trip,” she says. There is a single tape inside, a Maxell recordable with “Mix #12” scrawled on the label. She kisses me on the cheek. I want to say something like, “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Florence Nightingale,” but either because I can’t move my jaw quickly enough for the quip, or because I am genuinely moved, I just say, “Thank you.”
So, while Johnny Bender talks about his dad giving him a box of cigarettes for Christmas (such a drama queen — we’ve all got problems, Judd, learn some humility), I listen to “Take on Me” by a-ha and try to figure out where to go when I get back to the states. My parents? They would be just a train ride away from the airport, on 73rd and Central Park West. But the idea of answering their questions — about the completion of my PhD, about Prague, about my face — was too exhausting to consider. Back to the University? I was already registered for a semester’s worth of thesis research hours. The idea of going back there, sitting in the classrooms where I’d met Harrison, sitting at our old bar by myself, momentarily forgetting he was gone and looking over my shoulder every time someone came in the door, paying my tab, and walking out into an alley to throw up; I couldn’t do it. I know it as I watch Johnny Bender parlay a pernicious verbal assault of Molly Ringwold into a chaste kiss in a broom closet. The tape clicks. The soft static of silence, the slightest warble as the needle catches the record, and then those jangly guitars ringing out clean as Morrissey begins to croon about the last night of the fair.
I close my eyes. This woman, this nurse, whoever she was, I let her serenade me. Her tape, it is the only proof I have that I am still here.
St. Elmo’s Fire occupies an interesting place in the Brat Pack oeuvre, if for no other reason than for its attempt to bring a dark edge to their glitter and rhinestone image. You can almost see director Joel Schumacher attempting to wipe the Vaseline from the camera with a shop rag. They are so typically 80s, this group of kids: no substance whatever, simply the idea that the world was open to them, just asking them to take it into their hands and start stroking. Their movies are almost without exception focused around three goals: money, partying, and sex (which they, credulously or not I can’t be sure, refer to as “love”).
Take The Breakfast Club, a film whose central conflict is whether a group of high school kids would rather sit in a library all day dancing to Wang Chung or write 500 words of English prose. In the end, they get the nerd to do their homework for them and walk off with smug satisfaction, as if they have beaten The Man. The naïve hubris of the entire affair is ridiculous. Sunny as it might have been that weekend, as many pep rallies and malts and tentative handjobs as they may have missed on “the outside,” pulling one over on a high school Principal is, in almost no meaningful sense, a triumph over “The Man.” He probably had worse health insurance than Johnny Bender’s grease monkey father. The conflict of The Breakfast Club is that five teenagers who live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Midwest are bummed out that they’re missing the party. All of them (except for, alas, the nerd) get laid in the end — or, you know, fall in love — so it’s okay. “The party” probably looks something like the one depicted in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, in which two people decide they are in “love” without having really spoken to each other, and the only minority for miles is subjected to a series of Gong noises any time he dares to speak English.
The Breakfast Club is optimistic to a fault — it never considers any worldview outside of optimism. Of course Judd Nelson will get the girl, no matter how many demeaning slurs he hurls at her. That is what a life is for a young man in 1985. By the time we get to St. Elmo’s Fire, though, the bloom is off the rose. Consider the group of graduates walking in their robes through that field as a natural extension of those five kids in the library, their champion walking across another field and lifting his white power fist in triumph. The cast is reshuffled: Judd Nelson is a Republican now, with post-goth Ally Sheedy on his arm, but Rob Lowe has stepped in to fill the wrong-side-of-the-tracks role — he’s even dating Mare Winningham, sort of a blonde Molly Ringwold with the same pearls and laughable cardigans, but without the elocution lessons. Estevez is there, trading in his track suit for a Houlihan’s apron. What we have then, is the logical conclusion of The Breakfast Club’s 1980s optimism. I am rich, and I have Billy Idol painted on the wall of my loft, but who am I? For anyone who has known real hardship (and I’m no Nelson Mandela, but I’ve had my share), it’s insulting to consider that the deep Existential woe these people must navigate is how to find a fulfilling white collar job as white Georgetown graduates in Reagan’s America.
From the place on the street where I was left to bleed and calcify, to the American embassy, it is only 1.2 kilometers: less than a mile. From the top floor of the dormitory where I stayed, you could see the building, across the Vltava River, one in a muddle of short white buildings with orange tops, nestled there among trees and towers. I know the way well — it won’t be the first time I’ve had to visit them: over a bridge, down a long narrow street along a white plaster wall, through a public square to a street called Tržiště that is easier to crawl along while bleeding internally than it is to pronounce. I was left in a courtyard lined with tall hedges, gasping for breath, because the wind had been knocked out of me, because my chest had been kicked in, because I was trying to breathe through a mouth full of blood and a broken nose.
I knew that I had to make it to the embassy if I had any hopes of getting out of there alive. If it got out, this American student hospitalized behind the iron curtain, it would be an international incident. I’m not here to aggrandize myself, but the U.S. has risked war for lesser American citizens than me. Czechoslovakia couldn’t afford it. So what would you do, if you were the police in a Communist country? If the choice were, help this American queer heal himself, or throw him into the river, which would you choose? I couldn’t be found. I knew this, intellectually, but it took a very long time to formulate this thought. I was still just lying there, on the cold cobblestones, waiting to see whether I was starting to die.
The bartender’s name is Brian Flanagan. His apartment in Jamaica is all Spuds McKenzie signs and black leather furniture.
“It’s not much, but it’s close to work,” he says, flashing me a crooked-toothed smile as he pulls some blankets out of a linen closet and starts making up the couch.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, don’t worry, this is for me. You can have the bed.”
I step over to him, attempting to be smooth, an utter failure as I must lean onto the arm of the sofa when the movement proves too much for my cracked ribs. “We can both have the bed,” I say, leaning in to kiss him. It is difficult through swollen lips, but he lets me. I reach down for his belt buckle. He places his hands on mine, and then brings them up to his shoulders. Such a tender gesture, I realize only later, alone in his bed.
“Look, I’m sure you’re,” he takes a beat to look me over, “ — great. But, I just didn’t want to leave you alone. I’m not interested.”
His grip is strong, so I try another tactic: leaning in, speaking directly into his ear. “Don’t try that innocent straight boy act with me, Flanagan.”
Now he has me by the shoulders. He pushes me lightly onto the arm of the sofa and steps back. “Not straight. Just not interested.” Down the hall already, now, calling back, “I’ll make the bed for you.”
I consider leaving. I couldn’t have been more insulted. But it’s dark out there. I don’t want to face the streets. I take the bed. There is a mirror on the wall, and I don’t even need to look into it to feel hideous, disgusting, embarrassed. Brian tucks me in, leaves the door cracked. “Let me know if you need anything.” There is no chance of sleep. Who knew when there would be, ever again.
Rob Lowe whispers into my ear. I’m sleeping in an open field — I can hear crickets chirping. The wind through the long fronds of the grass plays saxophone music. I don’t see him, but I hear his voice, and when I hear it, I see that the sky above me is the exact color of his eyes.
“Get up,” he says.
But I don’t want to. I am naked, and I can feel the air, a spring breeze, moving across my skin. I smell dandelions and freshly tilled earth.
“Get up, Manny,” he says.
But I can’t. It feels so good. And I know that if I wake up, I will be in pain again. I will be on that cold street. I will be bleeding. I will hurt.
And then I do. I suck in air, a long, desperate, broken gasp, and the air is so cold that I feel it in my chest. A distant clock tower strikes. It’s three in the morning. Carefully, I turn myself onto my chest. The moment I do, I have to call out, as pain moves along my spine. Several of my ribs are broken, I realize, which accounts, at least, for the pain in my chest.
Fucking cobblestones. I thought they were beautiful, too — every day I spent there, I was charmed by them. It is one thing to walk along them with a moleskine tucked in under your arm, or to drink a glass of Pilsner on a table in a courtyard full of them. It is quite another to drag your broken body along their jagged length.
With great effort, I push myself up into a kneel, and then lean back so that I am sitting on my legs. I stay this way, because only this much has taken more strength than I thought I had in my entire body, and I’m exhausted. I want to lie back down, fall asleep, knowing what it will mean. I want to stop. I want it to stop. Ahead of me, about 100 yards, there is a bank of fog moving up from the Vltava River. I need to make it to the bridge.
I see the American flag around a corner down a narrow alley as the sun is coming up. There is a spring breeze in my ears. I am alive.
I fall asleep at some point, maybe while Emilio Estevez is sexually harassing Andie MacDowell. I hadn’t slept all night. I simply lay in Brian Flanagan’s bed, alone, wondering how long I had to wait before leaving. Would sneaking out the door at 7:00 a.m. be more polite than doing so at 6:00? After all, this man, I had to admit, had done me a great service, even if he hadn’t, well, done me a great service. I settled on 6:30, leaving a note, a twenty, and my phone number. (Hey, maybe once my bones healed, he’d be game).
When I wake up, St. Elmo’s Fire is still going, my popcorn has fallen from my lap and scattered out across the aisle. Demi Moore (she’s in this by the way, and she looks great) is shivering on the hardwood floor of her apartment, the windows open, ready to kill herself. She’s shivering, she looks blue, and it’s bad because she’s the only one of them who’s still going to be famous after this movie, so it’s important to save her. Judd Nelson is trying to push Andrew McCarthy over the edge of the fire escape. It is that part of the movie (even though the smooth jazz saxophone score would tell you otherwise) when everything is falling apart.
Except that it isn’t. Because screeching around the corner in his Red Fox pickup truck, bandana around his forehead and coveralls open to show his chest, welding iron in hand to cut the bars on Demi’s window, here to save everyone, is Rob Lowe. He looks up at the fire escape, and the camera looks down at him, so he’s looking up at me, and he says, “Looks pretty out of hand up there,” and it’s so sexy and cool that I’m almost hard. And then he’s up the stairs, and then he’s breaking down the door. (And Ron, the gay neighbor, who is mostly a cardboard outline, is visibly excited watching Rob Lowe break that door down, so at least they got that right). And then he’s wrapping Demi Moore in blankets and stroking her hair.
“This isn’t real,” Rob Lowe says to her. “You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere?” And here, he uses a lighter and a spray can to shoot a plume of fire into the air. “Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them. Because there was no fire. There was no St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when things got tough, just like you’re making up all of this.” And here Joel Schumacher must have told the sound editor to just lean on the cross fade bar, because the piano trill, the love theme, swells up more than my face at this moment. “This is our time at the edge,” he says.
There are multiple problems with this speech. First of all, St. Elmo’s fire is real, it’s an electromagnetic phenomenon. So is St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain (I was raised Catholic). More than that, unlike Andrew McCarthy moping about writing for the newspaper or Ally Sheedy who can’t find a place to put the new Crate and Barrel wok from her wedding registry, Demi Moore is one of the only members of the Pack with actual problems: Her step mother is dead. Her father hates her. She lost her job. These are all things that I think, watching him make this ridiculous speech. But it doesn’t matter. Because Rob Lowe isn’t talking to Demi Moore. He isn’t talking about his friends from St. Elmo’s Bar. He’s talking about me. He’s talking to me.
The rest of the movie is happening, now. They’re getting on buses and looking in windows and walking down streets in the dark. Plotlines are resolving. I’m not watching any of it. My bloated, bloody face is in my hands. I’m crying. I can’t stop. My entire disaster of a life is bleeding out of me through my eyes.
I am standing in the middle of the bridge, at the highest point of its span over the Vltava. Prague is behind fog, and I can see none of it. I stop to rest against the rail, leaning my entire body onto the stone, my head hanging heavy over the water. It has taken me half an hour to move 100 yards, I know because the clock tower off in the distance has just rung for 3:30. I am looking down into the water (in theory — for all I know there is a Burger King down below that fog). I am struggling, once again, to breathe, the exertion of the crawl adding exponentially to the difficulty of the cracked ribs, the bleeding nose and gums. The idea comes to me indirectly, as I wonder how far down it is to the water that I can’t see, how cold that water would be, how quickly the river is moving, how difficult it would be to swim against the current. It is only natural curiosity at first, but as soon as I start to think about it, I realize the inevitable. I realize that I am going to jump in.
No sooner have I decided that I am going to jump off the bridge, than I see something moving in the fog below. It is the figure of a man. He is rising slowly from the water, through the fog, his arms at his sides, soaking wet. It is Rob Lowe.
“What are you doing?” he says, in a tone that my mother might use, disappointed, but also incredulous. I am barely listening, because I am looking into those eyes of his. “You need to keep going,” he says.
“Oh, what do you care?” I spit blood down into the abyss. If it makes a splash somewhere below, I don’t hear it.
And I realize then that I’m not talking to Rob Lowe. He’s chubbier than that, his hair is blonde. He’s wearing a polo shirt for Christ’s sake. It has taken me so long to recognize him, maybe, because when I picture him now, I picture him dead in a box, not the way he was before, when I met him, when I knew him.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m not here,” he says. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a whole research project. Probably over your head, Soviet adaptations of American popular culture, focusing mostly on Marxist readings of popular children’s folklore, using — “
“No. Not in Prague. Here. On this bridge. Why have you stopped?”
Behind me, I hear a siren moving through the narrow cobblestone streets. They sound strange here, sirens. This one startles me, and I flinch, my body pitching forward for a moment toward the edge.
“Would you pay attention!” Harrison is beside me now, sitting on the railing, his feet dangling over the edge like he’s Huck Finn and we’re coasting down the Missi-fucking-ssipp. He pulls me back onto the railing by the blood-soaked collar of my shirt.
“Just leave me alone, would you. I’m trying to get up my nerve.”
“Oh, gotcha, yeah, jump off this bridge and kill yourself in Prague. Go ahead.”
“I’m going to.”
“Of course. Go for it.”
“You would, probably. But you’re not. I’m not going to let you.”
“I’m doing it for you!”
“Is that right?”
“Would you look around!”
“I can’t see anything. Too foggy.” Even in death, he’s a smartass.
“I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about this fucking world, Harrison. Everything is just garbage, everywhere I look. They’re killing us! I don’t know who’s doing it, but they’re killing all of us, one at a time. If we’re not vomiting ourselves into toilets in Chelsea, they’re beating us to death in Tulsa, or in Kansas City, or in fucking Prague! Even in Prague? There’s just me, and I’m all alone, and I’m giving up. I want to.”
“Are you done?”
“I don’t know what else to do,” I said. “I’m so tired. I don’t have a choice.”
“You’re right. You don’t.” He is holding my face in his hands now, and I realize as he does it that he isn’t here, that this isn’t happening, and when I realize that I want to jump in the water all over again. “You don’t have a choice. You have to get off of this bridge. You have to get to that embassy. You have to keep fighting.”
He kisses me on the forehead. He did this once, when he was alive. And even though he isn’t real, I can feel it, like I’m still there with him, holding him beneath all of those blankets in his freezing apartment in East Lansing.
“What if I can’t?”
He looks at me, and he smiles. And we are back in our usual place, sitting against the bar, ordering another round of drinks. The snow is falling outside, but we can’t see it through the windows, fogged as they are with our breath. We are there, still, knowing that there will never be an end to this warmth. “Can, can’t, will, won’t. Fuck it, Manuel. Either you do it or you don’t. Either you survive, or they win.”
He laughs in a minor key. “Hell, who isn’t, these days?”
He steps off of the railing, but he doesn’t fall. He is floating over the water. He pulls a saxophone from behind his back, and begins to play it. Harrison is gone. He’s Rob Lowe again, now. And now we’re back in a field, birds singing, but I don’t care about any of it. I wake up. I’m lying on those cobblestones in that fog over that bridge.
The clock strikes four. I swallow a mouthful of blood. I have to beat the sun.
“Sir?” There is a hand on my shoulder. Through tears, I make out the shape of a gangly teenage girl in an usher’s uniform. She has a push broom and a dust pan full of popcorn. “Sir, are you okay?”
I wipe my eyes, and even though I don’t know the answer to her question, I know that I have to get up, that I have to go, that I have to keep going, and then go some more, and that I can never stop.
On the way out of the theater, I put the nurse’s headphones back on and press play. It’s the last song. I don’t recognize it at first, but as I’m walking down the stairs of the Subway stop, I hear the trilling of the piano. The saxophone is in my ears as I walk into the darkness, warm like a lover’s breath.