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Snow piled up around the entrance to the only bar on Main Street, when a disheveled young woman walked in. She ordered a shot of gin and sat two seats away from me.
I looked her up and down. Hiking boots, sweatpants, hair full of knots. Wet dog smell, but a neat little face. She looked like she had been travelling, or drinking, or both. “Evening,” I said.
She nodded in response and swallowed her drink. Then ordered another one. An outsider, to be sure. A waif.
I thought I’d check up on her. “You going somewhere? You know where you are, don’t you?”
She waved westward and downed her second gin. Nearest damn thing was Minneapolis 300 miles due east.
By her third one, her tongue loosened up a bit. “I got folks in Jericho I’m trying to reconnect with. North Dakota.”
I nodded. “What got you disconnected?”
She shrugged and spaced out. After a while, she said in an artificial, high-pitched tone, “Porcelain.”
I was intrigued but figured from the body language that she didn’t want to share much more. “How long have you been on the road?”
“However long from New Hampshire to here. I went to school there for some time, and had some… misfortunes. Some people came into my life and left. Now I’m on my way to a better place.”
“Ha, tell me about it. What’s your name?”
As she walked past him, she caught sight of a surprisingly uneven face, slightly older than hers and displaying signs of life’s wear and tear. Then he looked away. She proceeded silently with a sense of injured ego—even a man like this would not look twice. This reaffirmed that she did not belong in this town, neither in its great halls, nor in its seedy alleyways. God, she must’ve been hideous.
“Hey, your shit!” he called out after her, and she turned around swiftly, hoping for that filmesque encounter that real life does not give. To her disappointment, the man was on the ground gathering dollar bills, acorns, candy wrappers, and other trinkets that had escaped through the hole in her pocket. Her mouth was locked into an embarrassed smile that did not extend to her eyes. He handed over her stuff. “I’m Gaetano, by the way.”
Beth Montgomery graduated high school at the top of her class and spent the next two years volunteering at a wildlife rescue. She landed at a well-regarded college in New Hampshire—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The acceptance letter rested in her hands like a budding pregnancy, full of pride and terror. She was psyched to leave Jericho and her great aunt, who believed that Hollywood was harvesting adrenochrome and drowned her sorrows over this by hoarding terrifying amounts of porcelain figurines.
College proved unwelcoming. She had no idea people could be this rich, this willing to stick their elbows in one another’s ribs. Whole swaths of humans seemed to be studying this rare specimen of regional and socioeconomic diversity. “Is ‘y’all’ cultural appropriation?” someone unironically asked her after class, overshooting her place of origin by 1000 miles.
She often found herself alone, Googling pictures of her hometown. Covering her eyes and ears, she could taste the sour summer air. It sparked a voracious appetite for a foodstuff she never thought to crave.
She started skipping her classes, caught up in looking at expensive flights and long roadtrips. Just in case, she decided to walk to the pharmacy and buy some travel-sized things. On her way, she saw a young man sitting at a bus stop with no seeming intention of boarding a bus.
Beth would see Gaetano at the bus stop every morning. They would share a wave, a nod; once, a crickled envelope escaped her fumbling hands and landed in his decisive fingers (this she snatched from him especially swiftly, as it contained cash for her crazy great aunt).
In the meantime, her own life was coming undone. Every vomit-filled trash can she knocked over, every ignorant classmate her imagination battled in the shower, every B- reiterating that, actually, she was just above average, unspooled a vague suicidality. At first, it felt foreign, a nasty weed sprouting in her verdant mind. Soon, it began to feel good, a space she could retreat to when people were theorizing about the realities of her life in front of her fucking face.
“I find it hard to believe that people in America experience food insecurity. Don’t get me wrong. I would feel bad for them if they did, but like… who knows if they’re just saying that.”
The tipping point came when Beth’s roommate dressed up as her for a party. “It’s a white trash look!” Caitlyn exclaimed, spinning in front of the mirror in a copy of something Beth had worn to prom.
Beth stood awkwardly in the corner as her soul shriveled. She felt self-conscious of every inch of space she was taking up, until Caitlyn let the door slam behind her. As soon as she was alone, Beth pulled out a post-it and methodically wrote down all her usernames and passwords, just in case they needed to recover them. If… if. She placed the post-it on her desk and headed out steadfastly in the direction of Mount Hemlock, the tallest cliff in the vicinity.
As she stepped off the narrow, winding road and peered into the dark obscurity beneath her feet, she pictured the fatal choreography. It started to rain.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go. At all. This was supposed to be her best year. She started to choke up, recounting every shameful encounter she had over the past month. No one liked her. Not one of them would call her their friend.
It was not her wartorn soul that sent her feet slipping, but a spook: a car in the distance.
Someone grabbed her by the forearm and pulled her into the road. She was suddenly face to face with Gaetano.
She asked, “Why’d you grab me? I wasn’t gonna jump. I was just looking.”
“Aha, I know people like you. Just looking, until a bad thought sets in, you make one last regrettable decision, and get forgotten like a damn dead mouse in a wall.” He went in and shut the door behind him. Then, he pulled out a handle of cheap gin from a mini-fridge and threw it at Beth. “You don’t know yourself well enough to decide to do that.”
She looked at him in dismay, indignant that a stranger and a man would tell her how to feel. How ballsy. “What does that even mean?”
Beth did not dare break the silence in Gaetano’s rickety pickup truck as they rode through the nothingness of the rainy night.
Gaetano spoke up. “Don’t bitch, please. We’re going to Skullcap. Half-hour up north, over this mountain range. I’ve got roommates, so you’re gonna have to be quiet.”
Beth nodded slightly, unsure if she cared a lot or barely at all.
They parked in front of a shed-like house at the end of a nondescript lane. The air was thick with petrichor and full of sounds: crickets and frogs and the clatter of a train passing in the distance.
They stepped inside and walked down a narrow hallway to a small, shabby bedroom. Mildewy air assaulted her lungs.
Who was she? What were her values? Did she love unconditionally? Would she let her friends break the law? All night, he poked and prodded. Turns out, she had a rigid picture of the world behind her eyelids, and most people, including herself, did not fit. Her head was cracking from alcohol, and, beyond the grimey window, she saw the orange blast of the sunrise. At this point, she had no idea who she was. Her very own reflection felt unusual in Gaetano’s small mirror.
Then, Gaetano went quiet for a few minutes. She thought, well, maybe he’ll… no. He suddenly announced that he was taking her back to campus. “You better start going to class again, too. Don’t pout, Beth, it’s not good. Do what makes sense for the kind of life you’re trying to have.” She said nothing, feeling hurt.
When she unlocked her room, the post-it with the passwords was in the trash.
Throughout the next few days, she rehearsed how she was going to ask him for one more chance. She settled on: “Hey, I was moved by our conversation, and would like to see what it’s like living a different life. Maybe it will be for me.”
He did not respond for a few hours. “It won’t be.”
“You think I’m dumb,” she texted back immediately. “You’re no better than the rest of them.”
“I think there are things about the world that will ruin it for you when you learn about them. They’re gonna hurt. Everyone thinks they like pain until someone gets to dicing. Shit’s gonna start flying real quick, and you will feel bad for yourself.”
“I want it to fly so fucking hard.”
Twenty minutes had passed, and Beth resigned herself to a new bout of mourning the waste of her life. Just when she thought she had found her person, things got messed up again and brought her back to a place where she certainly didn’t belong.
Then her phone lit up with a notification: “Ok. See you at 9.”
Beth stood like a sapling in the violent November wind in front of her red-brick dormitory. She sought to avoid all eye contact with other students, thinking, “if he can read me like a book, then these glossy, well-bred people will chew through me like a bunch of silverfish.”
A few minutes went by and no Gaetano in sight. She began to feel the sort of hollow feeling you get when there is no gift from the tooth fairy. He doesn’t love me, she said to herself, and then felt stupid. Of course he didn’t love her—he felt nothing about her, as he felt nothing about most things (except the very act of feeling—on this topic, he had a lot to say, though most of it was fluff). Thus, it dawned on her: Gaetano was nothing but a cynic and a sophist. A kid whose boredom and idleness had driven him to the immeasurable length of inventing some awful life philosophy, just so he didn’t have to share the common mental life of decent, functional people like herself. If he showed up at all, she would challenge him on his vague, amoral views. Why don’t you vote? Why don’t you care? Oh, she’d destroy his presumption that she was an uncouth simpleton and he was an all-knowing, all-seeing God the Father. She quivered with passionate excitement at the thought of being more right than him.
At this moment, his dingy truck pulled up through the drizzle.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Do you actually care, or are you just going to dismiss my emotions again?”
He sighed and scrunched up his face. “Why would I ask if I didn’t care?” She then felt like she had committed the cardinal sin of getting angry at an imaginary caricature instead of this person.
They drove on in silence for a little while, as the rain turned to thin, flakey snow. The college town had transformed into sparse suburbia, then fallow fields and empty plots of land, thickets and conifers shooting out of magnificent crags.
“Where are we going?”
“A place you’ll never forget.”
After a while, they pulled off the road and parked by a little chapel that seemed to have been eaten up by a fire. Beth had a sick feeling in the back of her skull. Sure, the place was spooky, but it wasn’t remarkable. Gaetano, however, would deliver.
“Why did you bring me here?” Beth demanded an answer, on the verge of tears. By this point she had admitted to herself, let go of, and started to be repulsed by the idea that they were going to have sex.
“Because I want to show you something.” A calm and disinterested smile. He reached into the deep pocket of his coat and pulled out a small gun.
“What!” Beth squealed.
“Just watch,” he said and brought it to his temple.
“No!” She scurried up to him and tried to grab the weapon with one hand, while struggling to dial 911 with the other. They were in a dead zone, and she started to scream hysterically, her voice splitting into overtones: “Please? Please don’t do it?”
He took a deep breath and spoke up, not withdrawing the gun from his temple. “I have been alive for twenty-five years. That might seem short to you, being whatever the hell you are—21?—but that’s because you’re meant to live longer. Because you, like most humans, are caught up in this world of ideas, the ways others see you and label you and organize your selfhood in their little heads. ‘Oh no, the world is getting worse, hotter, lonelier!’ ‘Oh, now it’s getting better!’ Happiness fades in and out of focus, don’t you think?” She nodded. “For you. But I’ve made my own happiness. I have fulfilled my own project. I’ve had every thought I could possibly have. There’s nowhere further to go.”
Beth stared, her mouth transfixed in a horrible shape.
“This” (he gestured to the gun) “isn’t killing myself. It’s something else.” He put his hand down.
At this point, she produced a sharp exhale. Then, she began to laugh uncontrollably, a strained, tortured laugh. “Fuck you,” she hissed.
He giggled in response. “Yes, good. Now, go home, love. Really go home, though. To some place where you can figure it all out.”
She turned around and began walking in the direction of the college, stepping over rotten logs and patches of wet grass. About thirty feet down the road, she heard a single gunshot.
Beth rested her head in the crook of her arm. Though drunk, I could tell the girl had re-hurt herself. I think she liked it a little, the hurt and anger and alcohol swallowing her like a blanket. She must’ve been looking for someone to tell this to.
“This is the many-th night I haven’t slept,” she moaned and wiped sweat drops from her forehead. It was ten minutes to closing. The place was empty. “I just keep seeing the scene over and over.”
“I’m sorry. It’s like that sometimes,” I told her. I pictured the boy she was still wanting, still hoping his mind would posthumously change into a second version of her with some perks and upkeep. It gave me warmth to imagine his corpse, freed from its visionary mind, resting in some lonely furnace. I thought I got him completely. Only instead of dying, I’d probably go fishing.
“Yeah. Life gets better, kid,” I offered in closing. But what I really meant was: the beats and punches of this life will one day turn into a crooked rhythm. You’ll learn to dance to your own dirge.
Grace LeCates (@by_gel) is a multi-media artist from Cooperstown, NY studying mathematics and studio art at Amherst College. Seeking inspiration from the natural world and found materials, her work addresses ideas of excess, movement, multiplication, and organic growth. Follow along with her work at @by_gel.
Sofia Belimova (@soofmushroom) is a rising senior at Amherst College, currently getting ready to write an English thesis and working as the Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow at The Common literary magazine. Her poetry has been published in The Common, and a short story of hers received Amherst's Peter Burnett Howe Prize. She's interested in literary criticism, Gothic fiction, and folklore, but when she is not engaging in literary pursuits, she is hiking mountains, going for runs, painting, and making artist's books.