In the vestibule he thinks, What am I doing here? Looks around him at the faces assuredly not like his own. Confident and free-wheeling; investors in life. I have been nowhere, met no one, known nothing. The clock is hung high on the wall over the receptionists’ desk. She sits behind it, quietly huddled over a computer, perhaps, or a lipstick magazine. The clock ticks away the seconds that elude him. He should not have come, but now that he’s here he can’t think how to gather himself up to leave. How to collect his dissipated worth from the floor beneath his peers’ feet. Peers. What a funny word. Like taking a peek at something forbidden. Thinking this, he peers at the woman behind the receptionists’ desk, her hair falling forward in waves. The desk is so wide it nearly eats her alive.
Two nights ago he had stayed too late. He had been invited, as the friend of a friend, to a party held in honor of a soldier returning from war. His apartment was located near the Marine base where rent was cheaper. There were a lot of young families, a few students who clung to perimeters, like himself. Having lived there two years, he had made connections. Tenuous, greetings-in-the-hall-on-the-way-to-the-laundry-room connections. He had been doing just that in fact: gripping the basket of previously worn whites under his arm and fumbling for the key with the other hand when Sam came around the corner with her roommate, laughing about something.
“Oh, hi Paul.”
He nodded at her. They stopped at the soda machine next to the laundry room. Flourescent lights making green streaks in her otherwise blond hair. The roommate, whose name escaped him, leaned against the wall and bit her nails. Where was the damn key? He put the basket down and dug both hands deep in the pockets of his zip-up sweatshirt, patted the pockets of his jeans.
“Forgot your key?” she smiled up at him from where she bent, extracting two Mountain Dews with a thin wrist. “I do it all the time.”
“I’ll just go back and get it,” he said, picking up the basket and nodding to them both.
“Wait, Paul,” she said when he was nearly gone, “I know this guy downstairs whose having a party Saturday night if you want to come.”
That’s how he got invited. Simply because they had met in the hallway, and because he had forgotten his key, but mostly because something had made her laugh and he was near enough to feel the repurcussions.
He stood up and tried to move soundlessly to the desk.
“Excuse me,” he whispered and the girl looked up at him, her face a question and an accusation at the same time.
“I can’t do this,” he said.
She smiled then, as if this was a small victory for her. Like she sat there waiting for the flies to drop. He thought she took an obscene amount of delight in asking him the precise spelling of his name while she searched her list and drew a definitive line through it.
“The door is just behind you. Perhaps next time.”
He started as if to say something, to explain his insufficiency. Tell her why his life had been so lately defined by omissions rather than inclusions. But she had gone back to her magazine and his name was a dead and buried thing.
The party itself was loud and absurd. People wandered in and out. Came in wasted, got drunker, and left again. But he stayed. He stayed while Sam danced and mingled, while her roommate came up to him bearing drinks and said, “You don’t remember my name, do you?” And he laughed at his own absurdity.
Paris, of course. How could one forget such a name? She was a little bit dark and perplexing, a little bit less than luminous beside Sam (who positively glowed), but when she was just Paris beside Paul she wasn’t half bad. She would leave and come back, always with a drink in her hand. One for her and one for him. And toward the end of the night he was feeling loose and told her all about the audition on Monday. The possibility that he might, after all, make something of this dream he had. She listened and nodded.
“You don’t seem like an actor,” she said “No, although you have a face I might have seen somewhere before.”
“Familiar features,” he says, “I’ve been told that before. They are familiar to me at least, I’ve lived with them all my life.”
She laughed, indulgently he thought, because of the rocket fuel they drank. And because of the rocket fuel, her complacent laugh had an opposite effect than he would have hoped, and he felt like talking about it.
“I was not meant to be an actor, but there were times in my life that I thought I was so much less than what I should have been. So many things I couldn’t put to words. I think it would be easier to make it through life by a script.”
“So that’s what you’ll do then, because you would not do less, and could not do more?”
He felt the baldness of it, the scratchy tongue of it licking across his mind.
“It’s okay,” she said, “it’s more than most of us can do. Giving ourselves over to the pretense of being someone and something else entirely. Most of us only dream of that.”
It was the way her tone lent a validity to his position at the same time that it chastised him that made him bold, “I guess I’ve been living a pretense for a long time,” and then a sort of cop-out explanation, “I was a twin.”
“You were a twin?”
It all comes down to this. The things we cannot say, but do anyway.
“I felt the war was wrong, but he believed in what he was fighting for. I believed in it too, don’t get me wrong, it was just the damn war itself I had a problem with and he just pet my head like I was a mewling puppy and laughed at my high ideals, and do you know what I did while he was away? Nothing. I bargained my future on the past. I drank a lot and loved women and did not think about what was right and wrong with the world. I only sat there, letting life happen to me and doing absolutely nothing that might force a change upon the status quo. And he was out there, dying for his country, and change came anyway. It was a hot day, last July.”
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“Of course I can. I can’t wait for the world to make something of me.”
“But you want a script. You want to be an actor. Isn’t that the world making something of you?”
“It was his dream. It was his dream to be an actor. And now it’s the very least I can do.”
And that’s when he knew he had stayed too long. Her eyes went soft. Again, again, again. What am I doing here?
He would walk the couples through the houses, standing walls of posterboard and glue, and he never failed to see the boredom in their eyes. He was bored too. The lucrative business of throwing together houses out of cheap, man-made materials completely buried the possibility of individuality and creativity and art. And he could not stop thinking about the afternoon in the vestibule.
He got his real estate license when he was 22 because his mother was a realtor. It was easy. How had he deluded himself for so long with thoughts that he was more noble than that? Walking around with his pompous adherence to his own lethargic axioms and where was the rest of the world, in that time he spent wrapped up in himself, where had it gone?
He practiced acting while he walked through the houses, gesturing at the miraculously modern accoutrements of one room or another, watching the customer nod, bored and mindless and he felt the familiar tug of fear in his gut that it was his boredom, his mindlessness reflected.
He called her, asked her to meet him among the lines of tents and dusty paths of the newest installment of the local fair.
“Paris,” he said when he saw her.
They walked as the sun beat down. He could not figure out the benefit of treelessness in such a hot climate. Would no one plant one? But then, there must have been so much barren landscape in this nondescript midsection of the United States. One could not cover it all. Nearby the white buildings of the graduate studies building stood by, bold and daring in their bland gestures of respect to the annals of higher education. The audacity of walls to stand.
Paris was unusual, shadow on a bright day. But sunlight tangled even in her raven-colored hair, and he could not help but think that he was tragically overlooking something.
“You are distracted,” she said, “I was thinking about what you told me the night before last. I think you should go back. Try again. Your face…it really isn’t so common after all.”
It happened this way because he stayed too late at the party. Because he spoke too long and said too much to a girl who was more luminous than her pale friend (why had he thought the blonde more beautiful once?)
In the vestibule he waits and watches the faces for signs of recognition. For some proof of absolution that the world might offer. But there is none. There is a girl, two seats away, looking at her watch and then at the clock on the wall as if she cannot reconcile the fact of the moments passing with the way it feels to live them in a state of inaction. She looks at him and smiles. It is these small gestures of kindness that remind him what another might have done in his position. He strikes up a conversation.
She is blithe and articulate. She is no Paris, he thinks, but her laughter is contagious and when the time comes for them to part ways, he thinks perhaps she was grateful to have relieved the boredom for a brief time with a companion such as him. He thinks he might have loved her if he had been someone else. But then he corrects himself and thinks: She is the type of girl he would have liked. The train arrives and he is on it. The vestibule clears and refills and he is in a seat in the train car and no one seems much interested in who he is or where he’s going or the fact that he is going somewhere, anywhere at all.
The shirring of the wheels along the line is like the ghost himself saying, You thought you did not have a right to live. You did not have a right to die.