Chapter 3: Strawberry Hill
Sarah and Roy sat down to have their first serious discussion as a couple. They were in bad shape financially, and it looked like their experiment in hedonism was coming to an end. They were going to have to jump back into the rat race, make ends meet, work out a budget and stick to it. It sounded awful, but not as awful as starving to death in an ally.
"Let's just brainstorm and get some ideas down on paper," Sarah suggested as she opened up a spiral notebook to a blank page.
"Right," Roy agreed. "We need to find jobs," Roy asserted.
"Yeah, we do," Sarah agreed. "But first we need to find a pen or something so I can write this down."
After a few minutes of searching, Roy said, "Hey, I found something."
"My good fountain pen?" Sarah asked.
"No, there's three bottles of Boone's Farm in the hallway closet. When did we put these here?"
"I don't remember. What flavor?"
"They're all Strawberry Hill," Roy reported.
"I'll get some glasses," Sarah said.
The Boone's Farm took precedence over brainstorming, and the pale pink liquid delivered a sugary drunk that drowned their problems like a burlap sack full of kittens at the bottom of a muddy river. The wine soaked into their bones, into their souls and worked like a truth serum. They talked about anything and everything -- nothing was taboo.
Sarah recounted an episode in her life when she left college after having an affair with her English professor, Dr. Simon Phillips. It began as an indiscretion during his office hours and evolved into a serious relationship as the semester went on. Over a few pints at a local pub, one of his colleagues hinted to the good doctor that he'd better keep his Johnson in his pants before the cat got out of the bag.
Phillips was married, his wife was in her second trimester at the time, and he was chair of the English department. In other words, he had everything to lose, and Sarah was becoming too much of a liability. He called her into his office under the auspice of revising the thesis for her final paper. Then, without ceremony, Doctor Phillips stated things were over between them. She had memorized Phillips' little lecture and recited it for Roy, verbatim.
"'I believe we have exercised enough indiscretion for one lifetime, Sarah, so we shall let prudence win the day. From this point forward we will proceed only as student and teacher. Is this understood?'"
"He really said it like that?" Roy asked.
"Word for word," Sarah said.
"What an asshole."
"Yeah, I thought so too," Sarah said. She took a swig from the bottle and added, almost as an afterthought, "That's why I grabbed the letter opener off his desk and stabbed him in the face."
"What? You stabbed him in the face?" Roy took a good draw from the bottle while he waited for confirmation on that last statement.
"Yep. He was just sitting there lecturing me like a smug little prick, like everything we shared together was dirty and ugly and needed to be swept under the rug. I never expected him to leave his wife or quit his job for me, but he could have treated me with some respect. He could have treated me like a human being."
"So, you just stabbed him? In the face?" Roy asked again.
"He went all slack-jawed when I picked the letter opener up, like a fish or something, and I just jammed it right in his mouth."
"Holy shit," Roy said.
"Yeah, that's what I thought when it happened. It went in his mouth, and he turned his head real fast, just out of reflex, and you know how when you bite into a bratwurst and there's that popping sound when you break the skin?"
"Yeah," Roy said, already wincing because he had an idea of what Sarah was going to describe next.
"There was a popping sound like that, and half the letter opener came out through his cheek."
"Oh, fuck," Roy said.
"Yeah, it was pretty gross."
"Then what happened?" Roy said.
"I don't know. I mean, I'm guessing he made up some bullshit story about how he was walking while opening a letter and then tripped."
"Did he call the cops?"
"What was he gonna tell them? That one of his undergrad mistresses got pissed at him and stabbed him in the face?"
"I guess there wasn't much he could do."
"He had it comin'."
"So what did you do?" Roy said.
"I was pretty disillusioned with everything. I joined the Peace Corps and ended up doing work in Tanzania."
"That's awesome," Roy said.
"At first it was pretty awesome. You know, it felt like I was out there making a difference and learning about different cultures."
"So what happened?" Roy asked.
"About nine months after I got there some UN soldiers showed up in the village and evacuated all the volunteer workers. The officer in charge was pretty vague on the details, but he said a group of heavily armed guerrilla rebels had become active in the region."
"That's crazy," Roy said and took a long pull on the bottle.
"When I got back to the States, I found out that by 'active' the officer really meant the rebels were raping, robbing, and beheading villagers. There were even unconfirmed reports of cannibalism."
"Geez, that's horrible."
"When I found out I was so ashamed."
"Ashamed of what, Sarah? You didn't do anything wrong."
"But I didn't do anything right, either."
"What do you mean?" Roy said.
"I mean, people in this country never really do anything to stop atrocities. Our garbage ... the amount of food we throw away on any given day would be like a feast in those villages. We have the means to change things over there, but we just sit here getting fat, reading stupid beauty tips in vanity magazines and watching vapid T.V. shows with bad laugh tracks while people are getting slaughtered."
"So we're supposed to feel guilty for living in a democratic, industrialized country?"
"Nobody can tell you how you're supposed to feel. I'm just saying how I feel."
"Well, for what it's worth, I think you did something good. It was noble to go there and try to help people."
"Yeah, I guess," Sarah conceded.
Roy got up and opened another bottle of Strawberry Hill and topped off their glasses.
"Thanks," Sarah said.
"And what about you?" Sarah asked.
"What about me?" Roy asked back.
"What are you hiding in that complicated brain of yours?"
"Really? Absolutely nothing?"
"Well, there is one thing. But it's weird, and I don't think I should talk about it."
"Now you can't not talk about it," Sarah said.
"I have these sleeping problems. Not since I've been staying with you though. I think all the drinking and pot does something to stop it."
"Stop what? Like sleepwalking?" Sarah said.
"Sort of. Well, no. Not really," Roy said and he sighed.
"What is it?" Sarah asked.
"Sometimes I wake up and I can't move."
"That's sleep paralysis," Sarah said. "It's a defense mechanism to keep people from moving around and hurting themselves when they dream."
"I know. I looked it up. But there's more."
"What else?" Sarah asked, and she took a big gulp of wine and Roy followed suit.
"I get a floating feeling sometimes."
"And it feels like I'm gonna float away, but I think heavy thoughts. I think of heavy things, and usually, I sink back into myself."
"What do you mean usually? Have you ever floated away?"
"Yeah, once. The first time we spent the night together. Before I walked to the bar that night, I was in bed, and I woke up and couldn't move. Then the floating feeling started, and I couldn't stop it."
"What happened then?" Sarah asked.
"I went through the ceiling, and up into my upstairs neighbors' room, and came out through the roof of my dorm."
"The stars were making these beautiful sounds -- like singing almost. And there was another person up there with me."
"It was this yuppie I saw earlier that afternoon at Sal's Deli. He was being a real asshole to everyone, and he ended up choking to death on a Reuben sandwich."
"And you saw his etheric projection?"
"It's the energy form of someone who's traveling outside of their body. I think you have a restless soul, Roy. It's probably been around for a long, long time. Maybe for millennia. Some Eastern religions say if you have unfinished business in this life, then in death, your soul will remain shackled to this world. Your soul is trying to complete some task so it can ascend to a higher realm."
"That's the craziest shit I've ever heard," Roy said.
"What's crazy about it?"
"The whole thing. Etheric projection, or whatever you call it, never happened. It was just some kind of hallucination. I have a disorder -- something that makes me have these fucked up hallucinations. There's always a scientific explanation for everything if you look hard enough."
"That's bullshit," Sarah said, "You know, some people would love to be able to do that -- project their consciousness outside of their body. I know I would. It would be so enlightening, so spiritual. But for whatever reason, some closed-minded little teenager receives this wonderful gift, and all he wants to do is deny it's real and call it a disease. That's messed up, Roy."
"Well I didn't ask for a gift like that," Roy said as he stood up and stormed into the bedroom.
Sarah followed him, switched on the light, and found that he had already crawled under the covers. "What the hell's wrong with you? You didn't even take off your shoes, and now there's probably mud in the bed."
"So?" Roy said with all the defiance of a two-year-old.
"Why are you so upset?"
"Because it's scary."
"It's beautiful, too," Sarah said, and she kissed him on the forehead.
"What are we gonna do?" Roy said.
"About money. About jobs. About existing."
"We have two days before rent's due. We could probably stay here another couple months before the landlord could get us evicted, but I'm thinking we should just pack up tomorrow and get out," Sarah said.
"And go where?"
"I've got friends in upstate New York. There's this cool chick named Jill I met in the Peace Corps. She lives with a group of environmentalists out in the woods. I stayed with them for a couple months after I got back from Tanzania. They're awesome people."
"And they'd let us crash there without any money?"
"They'd be insulted if you offered them money, but there's work there. That's how we'll pull our weight."
"What kind of work?"
"Manual labor kind of stuff. Fixing the roof, getting water, gathering firewood, or berries, or whatever. There's always something."
"If you think it's all right," Roy said.
In the morning, the hangover monster got to work on Sarah and Roy with a lead pipe. They each managed to get a little puff off a nearly microscopic roach, and they split the last swig of Strawberry Hill, but it wasn't enough to even them out, and they could only lay back down and close their eyes.
Just before noon, they managed to peel themselves out of bed and make the quarter-mile walk to Lucky's Diner. Black coffee and greasy eggs worked their little miracle, and they started to feel almost human again.
They packed their duffel bags and drove to the pawn shop with a trunk full of meager possessions to see what they could get. The guy behind the counter gave them thirty bucks for the television, fifteen for the science-fiction-heavy VHS collection, and another twenty for the VHS player. He agreed to fifteen for the pots and pans, ten for the blender, and five for the toaster.
"Look on the bright side, Roy. We just lightened our load by about a hundred pounds. That's really gonna boost our gas mileage," Sarah said.
"I guess you're one of those 'the glass is half-full' people," Roy mumbled, as he checked the level on the dipstick under the hood of the Champagne-colored 1985 Honda Accord LXI.
"I guess so," Sarah said. "Does she need oil?"
"Yeah, she's Wanda the Honda," Sarah said.
"Oh. No, the fluid levels are all good. Wanda doesn't need anything."
"All right, let's roll. Can you drive stick?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah. Of course. Sort of," Roy said as he got behind the wheel. Wanda jackrabbited out of the parking lot, stalled in the middle of the busy five-lane boulevard, roared back to life and peeled out just before getting t-boned by an absent-minded soccer mom in a dinosaur-sized S.U.V.
It wasn't the comet in the sky or the lion in the street that had foretold the death of Julius Caesar, but the close call with the S.U.V. was a pretty good indicator that the new phase they were entering wasn't going be boring.
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