Sometimes friends split after grad, half school and half workforce. While I'm learning to make a difference, kids I came up with are finding more derivative outlets for their ambition. Make or miss, life is a series of cutoff lines. Tonight, Bird got motivated and it's my knuckles stepping up for the make going white on his wheel.
'Beat the Peak' is a game that starts far from home. The driver drops a dot or two, depending on distance, and races to a safe point against his own sensory degradation. Tonight, we're playing without a safety on dangerous streets. Bird, the designated clean, took eight hits without warning and locked us into a restless trip. Wrong turns get you booked or jacked as difference thins between oblivion and redemption.
Night found us two districts over and late for a busted kegger. Neri and his new girl held us up, but we didn't want to surrender the occasion. Used to be we'd stumble easy into good times; turn your back to get a degree, though, and it dries. Guys my age are getting married and nursing careers. The only friends you can count on are the ones that everyone else has outgrown.
Bird met me as a freshman prodigy on a weak swim team, son of a medalist. He had a terrifying butterfly, raw power and high decibel torque. He murdered school records and left wake like riptide. During practice, I swam beside him to ride his drag and broke a best first try. He needed help staying out of remedial class, so they sat him next to me and I carried him. Grooming him for provincials, they kept an eye out. First week, the fish had clearly been told to leave him alone, rushing just me with the razor. This junior, Callahan, carved the Northern 'N' into my hip while they held Bird back screaming to fight. Afterwards, it was just Bird on the outside. Every time his name got printed, they all burned malice.
Bird is thinner these days, hair grown in. Venal arms are pointing at things cutting through sky and I'm trying to block it out. The way the world only existed between two lines on the bottom of the pool, it's now just yellow paint on pavement barely steady between my thumbs stuck up like goalposts. The demons aren't here yet but they itch the back of your mind as they hatch. Over and over, you estimate course and time, still coming short and vulnerable. Very slowly, we plant the seeds of change, but we can't control how they grow. You just ride it out. This time, it's Bird leaving the world behind; call it revenge, a throwback to better times.
"You'll know when it hits." Neri is reading my thoughts. He knows I'm feeling for it, knows I'm getting false positives. His voice is calm, far from calming. "The drive gets better when you taste the enemy."
I can't see him, but I know his demons got hold. Neri drops early and often. His girl looks cloudy too; she's beaming terror from the rearview. I want to comfort her but I don't remember her name. We both took singles at the same time, so mine's pullin' in the drive ready to knock.
"It's fine, Jess. D's a machine." In my head again, Neri wants to drag her out of my world and into his. "He put away like seventeen shots of eighty-proof fire on his eighteenth and still got us home safe. Remember that, D? Then we got to my place and did bowls."
"He's right, Jess. Forget it." Nine shots down before I cabbed it that night and true swimmers never smoke.
Neri knows that tripping worried brings restless dreams. He wants his girl seein' flowers while his boy tastes the horror. Back in school, he always cut on us to smoke the girls out. He'd bring them 'round and make introductions, then whisper at 'em all night 'til they got in his Pony. He had a spot behind the plaza where the merch came in. He always came back alone, smiling like he got play while the rest of us forgot her name. Our eyes lock and I break first; she knows. Guilt notwithstanding, it beats being afraid all lonesome.
The team shit on Bird for everything he did different. He caught hard heat for shaving before meets. Stark white, no eyebrows or emotion, he looked skeletal. Nothing to do with resistance, he said, just the need to feel the water flowing over him. Catching those moments of laminar caress makes you feel like you belong down there. That loving touch hides burning lungs and heavy limbs, makes you indestructible. The trick is to ride the euphoric moment to the finish. Look forward to what you want or back to what you lost and that moment vanishes.
When past and future hurt, there's only one place to hide. Bird always placed, taking those ribbons like he'd go all teary, posing for the daily then changing alone. Anxious voice and still reeking of chlorine, he came to study after. Boy couldn't hold an idea without thinking 'bout how far behind he was and giving up. He stayed 'til he learned, though, got a taste for ma's cooking. He got scary 'round my friends at first, sitting quiet and eyeing 'em like a stray mutt—ready to tear throats come first sign of threat. It was Neri that took him to blaze and talked him up; then he brought Bird inside and got him laughing with everybody.
The demons are here all right, tumbling me down dark and curious. It gives that weightless feeling in your junk, like reaching the apex on the swings. I'm Charlie Bucket floating towards the fan; nothing to hold onto but the residue of some strange candy. The dials go up on the dash as I squeeze what I can out of my relative cohesion before the guests make themselves at home. Young eyes looking back in the rearview, she can't be more than sixteen. Neri took his pick of the stoners 'cause he lets 'em taste for free. She's already a knockout, though. Riding the undertow to bigger water, their moment brings 'em through, reefs and shipwrecks. Call it symbiotic. Neri started the push full-time after grad and never thought twice.
I've been hearing bad stories since leaving, though. You can't trust Neri if he can read you, but you can bet he'll lose his shit if he can't. Play without being played, climb the peaks and beat the cuts. One B too many and you're out of med school. One short flip-turn and you're dead last in a heat. These days, you need to be flawless; the authorities demand it. Unless someone else climbs the cross, it's one mistake and done.
Bird started spending weekends in basements with us. The boys liked him when he got loose, went out their way to pick him up. He kept dancing out mayhem and we kept laughing. Someone would talk offhand 'bout some kid that robbed his change and Bird would brick his windows. Someone would say that a couch looked like shit and Bird would torch the cushions, childlike laughter manic and endearing. We never saw the inside of his house and never asked. One day, he took his shoes off and showed his webbed feet, like his toes got melted together. A routine trick became mythology as the entire school buzzed about the freak with all the press, the born Olympian. His marks got bumped enough to pass him. His times started looking near human come season's end, though, and the brain trust wasn't happy.
Sophomore year Bird came back to find Callahan a little heavier, a little meaner. He should've been cut for what he was posting, but coach kept him and said fuck-all about his shit form and condition. Cally messed with Bird harder than before too, and he kept going long after the other seniors quit and got to know him. Some days he waited against his locker so Bird couldn't get his books; other days he followed us home. Bird broke the school record at the first meet that season and then five times over in the coming weeks. He kept sober and Callahan kept the pressure on. Coach kept looking the other way and denying me earned race time, keep the weapon happy.
Paranoid little tugs at the corner of your vision, rats and bugs that disappear when you snap to look. I'm Charlie again on the suicide boat ride, except the tunnel doesn't end. Bird said he didn't sleep much those days, said he'd wake up scared but couldn't remember his dreams; this is how I feel, like I've been painting bloody dreamscapes but can't see the topography. Whenever I realize I'm having a nightmare, I find a way to kill myself to wake up; damp clothing around my back and I need to think twice before plowing a storefront. Sometimes Bird spaced out when you spoke to him, interrupted you in a burst when he came too. Jess had been trying to get my attention for a while, my name in a sweet voice over and over like a mantra; tie me to the mast.
"D." Like someone blowing lightly onto the hairs of your neck.
"D." Like a lacquered nail tracing letters into your back. What are they writing? What is she saying?
"What." My voice startles her, and whatever intimate moment we had is gone. It'd been a while since a girl said my name like that, sugar and sandpaper.
"You're the doctor, right?" Steady voice, like getting a kite out of the wind and letting it slack, letting it dip.
"But you're gonna be? Us girls think doctors are cute." Reel it in, nice and slow.
"If doctors are cute, nobody told the ladies at my school. I'm doing it for my parents mostly." This is something I've never said aloud.
Looking back again, she's sending an eye that I just barely recognize as a put-on. Already, she plays it convincing, knows how to disarm. Neri has no idea how bright this kid is or how far she'll swim when the fun stops. Just for a second, I can take my thumbs down and still keep straight; I can forget about the demon itch, sweet paralysis. She brings her hand up front and gently strokes my arm, then my chest as I close my eyes and breathe in her smell like a lullaby. In two years, she'll be out of my league forever; three years and she'll pretend not to know Bird passing on the street. For as long as this breath lasts, though, she's mine, calling from deep.
Nails dig in as a streetlamp appears. Hard left with heavy rubber skid and I'm breathing hard, breathing fire. The demons gear up from idle, revving wicked and turning sweet breath to exhaust. Her eyes in the rearview tell me mine are full of murder.
"Look, thanks and all, but I need to be scared." No more illusions, no more lies. Dive back into the moment.
"I'm sorry." Voice goes shaky and genuine.
I let myself calm for just a second, put on a smile like she never could.
"You're a winner, kid, you know that? You'll get home and leave us in the dust someday. Until morning, though, it's on me." A moment of trust hits, eyes framed and off the road, promise and belief. She blushes and turns, edging into trance and leaving me lonesome.
The pioneers in back slide hands over each other, sold on my need to carry them home and tuck them in. Ambitious as we are, we'll close our eyes for candyland the moment authority fronts safety. Short shallow breathing and I draw game face. Played it smooth like Dr. J and rocked the baby to sleep, leaving me and the Bird to ride shotgun in each others nightmares like all those years ago. We both knew how it felt to reach for something we couldn't take, something we weren't built for. Athlete and Scholar, winning student together with the world at our fingertips; except that each only tops out where the other goes under, drowning double-clutch. Riding the seesaw, it's you that gets hit worse if your partner bails down low. Rubber to rubber, sole to floor-mat and I'm back in the race. Legs pumping and shoulders going lactic, the cheers dulled like playground noise as you let fly for the finish.
We were playing for second and it hurt, hate showing through inferior strokes. The needle marks on Callahan's ass got worse with every shower, reaching and failing. I almost caught Bird come regional finals, hard shocks of kick 'side my face two lengths from endgame. I cheated, looking forward, close enough to push. I poured it on, leaving nothing. I shorted my first flip and felt my legs hit wall straighter then expected; pressure on the sinus like choking upside-down. On fumes I pulled to his neck only to feel him break away. Water slipped through fingers like dreams, sloppy swimming and maniac possession. Head down and airless, smoke and colors bubbled up the sides of my vision as I burned for the win. When I came to, they said that Bird gave up the race to save me, said I had seized. Bird lost his shot at provincials.
They, red queens and ominous authorities, said I couldn't swim. Every year, thereabouts, I gotta drop everything and let it happen like waiting for a sneeze. My first acid trip felt like oncoming seizure, same brightness and bloody taste like too much sugar, except the dance never happened. It took me edgewise without dropping me, smoke without flame. Neural misfires become misfires themselves and I get hung like a puppet on the line between comedy and tragedy, ecstasy and agony. The memories resonate up your spinal column, voices underwater that climb like boiling coffee into your mind. Awash in headlights, you float from the limitations of the body, waiting for a crash that never comes. Like a coin landed on edge, I'm trapped awake in the moment, alive on the peak, infinitely aware and afraid. Call it heads or tails, heaven or hell, holding your breath. I never dropped again until today, and only because I owed it to Bird; only because I let him fall and ran away. He downed his chemical payload, manacles snapping and laughter like tears.
Bird capped his year drinking with the team, except I wasn't there to liaise. He tried to break into the talk with national team converse. Callahan, a returning senior ineligible for sport, stumbled out early and waited with a piece of rebar. He got one swing off before the boys pinned him, kneecap turned to splinters. Exams locked us down hard, so Neri was Bird's only visitor. Bird disappeared that summer and nursed some hard habits. I got a five-second call from Neri to get Bird back to the hospital; pulling up, the Pony screeched away leaving Bird on the porch. He sat in a gory pool smoking a slim covered in two shades of lipstick, drying prints of cowboy boots and high heels. They pumped his stomach, bandaged his feet and turned him loose to shrinks and cops. In my nightmares, he's got a displeased grin with laminated eyes, focused but absent; sometimes he's on a diving platform or stonewalling adults, sometimes he's slicing his toes apart with a steak knife.
He got cut and the school stopped bumping his grades, so he dropped out to run weight for Neri. Most of the crew washed their hands of him. Every few months he'd show in emergency with new bruises, or locked in the drunk-tank with undead thoughts. I made sure to visit, but my mind kept on 98th percentiles going on 99th. He brought me odd gifts and pleasantries way too late on weeknights, car-mats and math kits, Godspeeds and farewells. My folks started eyeing him like he got scraped off their shoes. He vanished again after swallowing a possession charge for Neri, justified 'cause Bird wasn't yet eighteen and couldn't manage nearly as well alone. He got out and kept breaking his back for the boss, loosening teeth on command. He never asked what was in the packages, or what the guys did to get the hurt put on 'em; sometimes, Neri put the order out for a chance at his next girl. When you belong to something though, love something, you don't ask questions—like pointless coursework or drills during practice, like needing victory and approval more than air.
Everything changes when you leave for school. You lose a familiar state of mind and find a kind of spatial homelessness. When nothing forces us to move on, we stagnate. Home is surrender, sliding off your guard. My room is a den now and my friends are strangers; floating between courses and roommates like way-stations, nothing is constant except the peak. The Birdman sits passenger, never having gotten that chance; he'd stay with his lot 'til it turns his corpse loose, cabbages and kings. His game is flying through the night laughing at shapes in the sky. In Bird's eyes, it's a religious experience; in Neri's eyes, it's sheer terror, momentary surrender of control to ensure obedience, like walking a rottweiler. The advantage to obsolescence is the ability to distill matters to their most important: How far can you drive? How much can you accumulate? Everything is a distraction, race against a minute hand. I've never feared criminal charges or put my foot to the floor to save my life. Why bother playing if winning's a foregone conclusion?
The air reeks of burnt oil and plastic, jet black exhaust in the mirror. The whole GTA can hear us humming over the emergencies in an all points bulletin. Some kids pull to the side of the road and stare like we're an ambulance. All knowledge is entropy as we ride the moment. Damn them all, parents and authorities; damn the doctorate. Stars are flying by at hyperspeed as we ride a glass elevator to hell.
"In juvie, right? They got this priest talking stories 'bout God telling followers to kill their children n' all right? Except it's this . . . just this big test." Bird has a soft voice with a side pitch, sounds of worry. He lets the line hang, flustered and squirming on a fishhook."
"Do what I ask because I'm asking it."
"You understand, D, always. I never gotta hide with you. You been gone so long." Relief turns a bittersweet smile.
"What's on your mind?"
"Nothing. Just that, what if it isn't a test, you know? What if it's all for keeps? Ever tear wings off flies? All for . . . you know . . . " He's flustering again, like he's ashamed of his word skills, ashamed of his thoughts.
"You're talking about vanity."
"Yeah, D. Either way, right? Why would God need to play like that, you know? Even if he's not for real about it"
"Since when does the Birdman believe in God? You got wings. You don't need to jump hoops for anybody. Fuck all of 'em."
"But that means I'm on my own, D. I can't deal with that." Lost and hollow, red eyes, Bird starts to crack.
"Think about it, Bird. Why do you beat the peak every weekend? Think about the whys behind all the crazy shit we ever did. If God needs that kind of validation, then he ain't all powerful. He's a fuckin' child. We don't need any part of him." I reach over and mess his hair. "You'll never be alone, Bird. I mean that."
After the accident, Bird made habit of sticking his arm out car windows, waving and sculling. He'd feel the boundary layer flowing over him, back in the pool, back in the moment. Call it a resurrection. The driven are at home in places that can't possibly sustain. Love and attention, narcotics and air deprivation, the highs are defined by the lows. Somewhere, adjacent molecules catch streams and separate as fingers cut through air, laminar to turbulent. Bird nods catatonic, vagrant thoughts like eddies circling around and coming back, stagnant echoes. I'm slipping smooth through straight road, absolute order and no time for peripherals. Chill drips through my bones from tightness and sweat, taillights ahead like candy-coated distractions.
Willy Wonka still looms malevolent in my dreams. Again and again, he's boating me through the horrorshow, bugs and monsters, mumbling Mad Hatter nonsense. He's scaring and belittling the guests in the home he never leaves, handing out sick punishments for little children with adult sized ambition. If I ever met Gene Wilder I'd either bleed him dry or shit my pants. I feel him pulling the strings, passing judgments and calling orders. I taste him eating holes into my teeth and marking my soul. Swerve around a melting car, gently, merrily. Right turn, U-turn, right turn beats a red and nicks a hydrant, life is but a dream. Home dangles like the phantom promise of an everlasting gobstopper, except it's riches that are real and eternal youth the lie. Our parents said we'd be given the world; as we learn they can't hand it to us, growing up and taking it ourselves is the only way to keep us sane, keep them validated.
"But then he did it to himself, killed his own son, right?"
"God sent his son to die, carry the weight for everybody."
"We're all gonna die."
"Not like that." Bird starts to whimper again.
"Love hurts, kid."
"I know how it's gonna end, D. Please, D, I need you."
Maybe enlightenment is finding something you're good at, a space in which you can work miracles; maybe love is the courage to give up that sense of belonging. Love is cutting your vacation short, leaving beaten peaks to get home. Long time ago, Bird checked his ambition to save a fish out of water, but he's better than most; the rest of us are spoiled to the core. The price is the moment, losing part of yourself and chasing it forever. Neri used to call me 'D for dependable', said I'd never turn on a friend. Some people are bad luck, though, stick and drag, consume and condemn. The way weakness hooks to strength, ravenous arms on thighs in backseats, is the way friendship becomes externality. Bloated executive classes, boomers looking for yachts and mansions take up chairs while fresh faces carve each other up when the music stops. Love is an abscess and, like I said, you gotta be perfect.
The details of race day come back the way Bird describes an acid flash; they freeze you in a state of irrational fear. The smell of chlorine still makes me nauseous, itching the eyes and bleaching the tongue. The feel of rope sucks the air out of me, buoyline pricking beneath my leg as I come back all bright and blurry. The merry-go-round turbine tears holes in my brain as I pull over and hop the curb. Hold or cut, sink or swim, it becomes clear I gotta give somethin' up. Bird says that he can't listen to some of his favorite albums anymore or the flashback cranks the gain; the slightest trigger brings you back to event horizon. Peaking worried guarantees all manner of forbidden thoughts rattling behind you like chains. Pressure on my skull like goggles underwater, like a carpal-tunnel finals session. I roll out the door and rub my apple 'til I get the heaves but nothing comes out. Stumbling up I feel the checkmate coming, debris flying all over like bubbles out my nose.
"It's been a mad ride, Bird."
"All over 'cept the cryin', right?" Cracking again, like watching a heat of swimmers pull away.
"Yeah, just like the races." I undo my seatbelt and stay a few minutes, looking for shooting stars gleaming like silver, like empty promises. A week of smog warnings, though, and all we see is the moon. Bird still reaches, like it was something higher that he wanted all along. "You know, all things gone perfect you'd have won gold, right?"
"You think?" Quick gasp and wet cheeks, taste of hope.
"There is no think. It was yours."
"Don't leave me, D." Desperate eyes like a non-swimmer in deep.
"What'd I tell you? You're goin' home, champ. You'll never be alone."
He swallows hard and slides over as I hop out. We lock eyes through the dirty window like rippling water, chains and surface tension; he's got that look again, riding to the front page one last time with sleeping kids in back. I kiss my fingers and touch the window, letting my hand slide as the machine slips over the hill and gone forever. Already I get the flashes, an entire friendship on newsreel putting me to panic. All those moments that make you smile now come at a price. True friends can never be left behind, you carry them shotgun, another itch to come knocking at lean times. Any minute, he'll crash the rails and go flying into the Don River, let the water trickle in, broken ribs and spinal fluid. One last shot of afterburn before lying with the shopping carts, signal fades to static oblivion. Elegy locks me down, remembering a suicide pilot swimming butterfly, brute force and no finesse.
Week ago, some kid got killed a couple blocks over and the air smells like blood, broken toys and candy wrappers. Dripping mainline comes a generation unafraid of taking godlike power by sending their peers to hell, rotten intoxicants. I got a long ways to float and Scarborough nights reek of badness, so I take it to a jog.