First came the gasp and then the scream. He knew the cause for the scream. But the gasp was from a dangerous place he had no history of. Then there was the sick slurp and the gasping release and collapse. The splatters made no noise.
The surgical pops of the crashing government façade were heard at first as through the filter of a video game. Her arm jerked with the insulting noise and the needle rushed through her flesh and snapped, the tip imbedded in her arm. Her shrill voice popped the air like a balloon.
"Whoa!" He gasped instinctively. Before the word was comprehended she lost all ability to comprehend. Her body made a horrific grumble as it was hit and sprayed its poison at him. Abstractly, he wiped as the maudlin child began to violently wail. He looked at it as a true chaos began.
There was screaming and buildings were flaking and dust rising and dark figures roaming. Wild shots again roared out from the periphery of the complex, poppopop pop poppoppop pop. It was fascinating and he was paralyzed. The dead woman was so intense. The child was so real. Its wail was so primordial. It had such meaning. The figures at the edge of the complex were so large.
"Come, come ON!" Jean pierced in her British accent as she rumbled and moved around a row of cots, knocking her foot and stumbling with her arms out toward him. Her eyes were exaggerated and her face was ugly.
He held the base of the broken needle. Her countenance was an elongated horror. She seized his wrist. He dropped the syringe. She twirled him and he heard the strange language from a distance. They ran from the tent and his trance was shattered with such a blunt conflict with reality.
Women in colorful dresses and bare-feet ran down the sand road. Their hands were up and their enunciations were a strange combination of tears and screams. To his left was the white and crumbling French colonial building that housed the corrupt remainder of the government. A few soldiers had emerged and were shooting back at the periphery. He turned his head and watched the butt of a riffle smash down onto a set of hands. He turned and there was a dead body in front of him. There was a smashed jug and wet sand next to the bent right arm. He ran around this as the English woman held to him.
The HIV tent was set up outside the government building. The town spread out before this. Behind it was the beach and the ocean. They'd run, quick, around the tent and to the back of the government building. Jean then radioed their position and a seaplane picked them up further south in a peaceful cove. The young man, Charles, hadn't said a word and Jean, a decade older, didn't push. She led him through survival and he held onto her hand as a perfunctory set of images reeled in his head.
There was another tent and other humanitarian services. Jean held the radio to her mouth and tried to ascertain their fate. As the seaplane took off she seemed to care less. They flew inland and got on a larger plane. He had his wallet and passport. The local currency was only colorful paper. He remembered the child as its mother lost her life. He looked to Jean and did not say a thing. He kept a reticent proclivity and they flew to Frankfurt after a night in the humid interior.
He watched out the window and Jean sat next to him. They were in first class and Charles had pulled out the screen and a movie was playing with Adam Sandler. The Sahara was like the Atlantic.
Jean spoke to him and he mumbled back. She talked about Kosovo and he listened. She watched him and then spoke about Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, then about Thailand and Phuket. She looked him up and down and turned as if she'd tried all she could.
They landed and he walked away from her. She paced after him for a moment until he slipped into a crowd and made his way down an escalator. She watched him go and hoped he'd be all right. She knew she'd never see him again.
He wandered the airport for hours, watching people and looking at magazines, looking at the brightly lit kiosks and the plethora of candies and goods for sale. Security guards passed him and slowed to tilt their heads as they casually strolled past.
He spent his last dollars on a plane ticket, flew over the Atlantic, touched down in Dulles and continued to LA. When the plane landed he didn't wake up. Everyone had debarked and he sat there, unconscious. A stewardess in a crisp uniform walked down the aisle toward him with her hands out from her hips. She stopped and bent over him, watching him for a moment, then pushed his arm. He didn't stir. "Sir." She sang out with a practiced voice and a smile crisp like her uniform. "SIR." She said and moved his arm again.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. She smiled and he undid his belt; then rose as she backed away to let him pass.
"Did you have any bags?" She asked and opened the overhead as he passed. He stopped and paused. She peered inside and he watched her.
"No." He said and walked off.
Seven hours later Charles was with his brother and his brother's girlfriend, meters from the ocean. They were casually dressed. Charles wore his brother's clothes. They were north of the pier in Santa Monica.
"I don't remember the flight." Charles said.
"No?" His brother, Stephen asked.
"No, Jean gave me these sleeping pills. They're stiff. I didn't wake up when the plane landed."
"Wow." Jordan said as her hand drifted from Stephen's.
Charles nodded to her and looked off into the ocean. There was a cluster of pelicans at the surface, some dove down and thudded against the water with their heavy bodies as the long heads sliced through the dark surface.
"I like the ocean." Charles said as he kicked the sand and turned to them.
"It's a nice thing."
"It is a nice thing . . . I remember the first time I saw the Pacific was after walking about four miles in San Francisco, from North Beach, across Chinatown, into Golden Gate Park and then straight to the water. I was with a couple buddies. One guy was a trumpeter. We were at Kerouac's bar and he spilled his drink on me." Charles mused and smirked a little as Jordan and Stephen tentatively watched him.
"I just remember it was strange. I was like 18. Reading all these Beat books. Thinking San Francisco was the coolest place in the world. It was rich software engineers in huge SUV's, though. The bay is incredibly industrialized." He looked off.
"Yeah." Jordan said. She went to speak but remained silent.
"Remember Piccadilly?" Charles asked.
"Sure. We drank too much absinthe. And those girls form Tennessee we tried to find at the Salsa bar?" Stephen answered.
"Yeah . . . I didn't have any idea of what to expect." Charles said, "I just remember being really drunk at night and this young Beat English kid appearing out of nowhere. I didn't see him until he was an inch from my mouth, like he wanted to kiss me. I gave him some pence and he looked at it and asked for more and I gave him two pounds."
"Yeah?" Stephen said and Jordan looked across her boyfriend to the younger brother.
Charles stopped and bent to the sand. There was some broken glass and he looked around. He reached for a rock and brought it down on the curved shard. It went flat and Charles pushed sand over it.
"It's funny what you remember." Charles rose. "That San Francisco beach," he shook his head. "We walked all day and then found the beach at sunset. There were a couple surfers out and the beach was wide. The sunset was bright on the wet sand. There was a ton of graffiti on the stone barrier to the city. It was nothing but it's the one thing I remember the strongest. Not smoking or partying with this girl who told us she 'wasn't shy' and someone could sleep in her bed if they wanted. But everyone was too stoned and stupid and we slept side by side on the floor." Charles shrugged. "For the entire weekend we'd just say, 'we dropped the ball' and burst out laughing."
"I remember you telling me that." Stephen said and they walked, passing a makeshift wood sign with a laminated sheet stapled to it. The flyer was announcing high levels of bacteria. It had rained slightly the day before. The three ignored this sign. Stephen was a water chemist with the state and he'd long since abandoned the passion to cry out at such things. He had a PhD and he was subdued.
"I heard some scientists did a study about men in LA and sperm counts." Charles said.
"Yeah?" Stephen asked.
"Yeah, they have really low sperm counts because of all the imparticulates and carcinogens in the air."
"Makes sense." Stephen answered.
Charles said and slowed and they tacitly turned and began walking south. The bright lights from the promenade and the pier were both beckoning and revolting. The three fell into a short silence as they watched the lights grow in the young night. Charles was distracted as he stared down the long flank of beach and the couple turned to him. There was a drum circle forming outside a bonfire and the vague drumming was distantly audible. The surf roared onto the beach and quietly retreated, then noisily rushed up again. Sea gulls circled and called and fought above the boundary of water and land.
"They also did this study about prayer and patients." Charles said and they turned to him. He was now in the center of the couple. "They actually found that those that were prayed for did worse off. Had worse recovery rates." Charles finished and Stephen didn't say anything.
"They presume it caused anxiety in the patients that were told they were prayed for. Wondering 'why me.' They did it blind too, with no difference."
There was a pause and Stephen said, "Charles is an atheist and wants me to be one too because he's lonely." It was ambiguous as to whom this was said to.
"I didn't say I was an atheist." He turned and said, "Nor anything about being lonely." He said quieter.
"Eh." Stephen shrugged and they let it pass. Charles stole a glance at Jordan. She was watching him with a smirk. She didn't speak.
"I just thought it was interesting." Charles said as they walked.
"Well, what do you want to do tonight?" Stephen asked as the lights became brighter and the drumming louder and the smells more pungent.
"Go to a huge techno club and get tight." Charles said.
"Tight?" Jordan said.
"So you want to go to a techno club and get wasted?"
"Ok. Well, that won't be a problem, you want to get a bunch of people together and what not?"
"Ok, babe, can you call your friends and tell them we're going to Sugar?"
And the couple took out their cell phones and began calling. Between calls Stephen said to his younger brother, "You should move here, man."
"I have." Charles said from his seat on the sand, between the dilating drum circle and the ocean. He moved there without any bags. He would slowly build and accumulate. He felt in a mood of retreat.
"Yeah, we're gonna go surfing every day and I'm gonna drive an ambulance around Compton." Charles continued and Stephen smirked then looked off in thought; he shrugged and put his phone to his head again.
Charles had undone the first few buttons on his shirt and Amman and Alex, two of Stephen's friends, were on E and Charles loathed them. They writhed about the dance floor as the lights dimmed and the colors changed. They were more than content without the search that Charles was undergoing. Charles pent up a rage against them from the moment he shook their hands and they rolled his name across their tongues and stared at him with lazy eyes. He felt rage and thought about smashing their heads together. It would be too easy, the two would probably cry in joy from the contact, fall to the floor and finger each other as Charles put boot to their face.
The club was more like a warehouse and Charles was sitting at a table with Stephen and Jordan, he was fomenting and burning his cash on drinks. He was trying to stay positive but he felt hot and wanted to smash the walls with his fists. He felt fervid temerity and needed to placate something impossibly forbidden in him. He was frustrated until a few of Jordan's friends arrived. Charles started to breathe easier.
They exchanged names and anecdotes under the loud pretense of the dj. There were three girls and only Charles. One had a boyfriend and Charles was tan and had strong shoulders and a clean face and short hair pasted up and over to the side.
He asked Jennifer to dance and they were out there. The hedonists on E were next to them and rolled their weightless heads toward the two as each pair danced. As the dj brought the crowd to a crescendo with a fragile, angelic female voice soaring over the percussive predictability, the crowd brought their hands up. Charles did and Jennifer bounced from leg to leg looking at him. She was showing him her stomach and the undersides of her long slender arms. He smiled at her as humid bodies pressed together.
Charles brought his elbow down and caught Amman in the side of the head. Amman stumbled and Charles felt good inside and put his hands to Jennifer's hips and they circled into the interior of the crowd.
The club was becoming as packed as the holiday streets of Manhattan and Charles danced with Jennifer without any need for words. He put his hands on her waist and she flung her arms around his neck. They kissed and cheered in solidarity as the dj, high in his booth above the sea of writhing, half-naked bodies, pounded his fist in the air. They danced harder and Charles pinched the front of his shirt between his fingers and pulled it out to air himself. With a gesture, Jennifer began to free his buttons and his shirt fell against his naked torso. She let out a female howl and Charles was embarrassed for her as she put her fingers to the muscles on his stomach. He pulled her closer and their bellies touched.
She turned and he had his hand on her flesh. He was rigid and she toyed with this. He put his hands under her belt line and felt the smooth fabric. He reached further and touched the moist hair and she turned and pressed hard against him.
Soon they were off the dance floor and Charles hugged his brother and Jordan like he'd never see them again, he asked his brother for cab money and left. They went to Jennifer's apartment in West Hollywood and they held hands and gently kissed during the ride.
She was in the bathroom and Charles lay out in her bed. Stephen had said she was 'good.' Jordan had probably said something similar about Charles. Outside pressure had condoned the act. It was easy to oblige. Momentum oriented them; the atmosphere of the club forced it.
He sat there in her bed and waited. He tried to think of something profound. His experience had been radical. He thought about the screams; first as the woman understood the attack. Then, as the needle tore into her and finally as she gasped and slipped away. They were all different. The child had been left.
But there really wasn't anything profound in the juxtaposition of the extremes. It was simply a case of being in two different parts of the world. Charles felt good about the way he was handling it. It was absolutely in no way his fault. He was a victim. But more than anything was a desire to not think about it. There wasn't any need. There was no wise poetry to be drawn except an insipid conclusion about the divergent realities of the world. Daily, he could read of attacks and suicide bombers. At Columbia he had been a first responder and many times traveled through Harlem at midnight to pick up a corpse. He had seen many gun holes and stab wounds. He had stitched together flesh and had given CPR to dead people. He heard water running in the bathroom.
Depravity made him eager to abandon himself. Charles remembered Lindsay. He had loved her so much. He used to hold out for a female that was perfect. But there was no such thing as perfection. There was only utility and the creation of duty.
It didn't matter and she smiled at him and women were always so playful when they teased and so serious when they stripped, when they were naked. Men could be the opposite. Often they were only a response. They were so simple. He was so simple, he thought. He wanted to keep her forever. Her legs were thick muscles and he wanted to seize them and hold them close. He wanted to obliterate memories with her smell and he wanted them to be the most for each other. She smiled coyly as he opened up the sheets. She fell down into his arms and as their skin touched, he felt more than naked.