Arnold grabbed his skim-board from our room as we descended from the Drug Den. I found a spare board on the porch sitting underneath a table. The dogged California sun was tiring, beginning its descent and bathing the mackerel sky in a pale yellow coating. A local teenage boy was shouting into his phone, sitting on the boardwalk barrier with one foot above sand, the other above pavement, straddling the wide cement bannister as if it were a horse. The beach was uncrowded and serene as Arnold proved to himself and the world that he was an excellent skim-boarder. Watching him float atop the water – effortlessly elegant, yet endlessly silly in his sombrero – he seemed like one of Kerouac’s goofy water bugs zipping across pond surfaces in Big Sur Valley, just playing in the water ’till the end of time.
Arnold – happy hedonist! Arnold – seizer of life! Arnold – lover of nature’s bounty! There a primal element to his spirit. His tastes were antiquated; he was more refined than the rest of us.
“Hell,” I said to myself rhetorically, “if I don’t give skim-boarding a try, what the hell am I doing with my life,” so I flung the ragged piece of wood and hopped on for the ride, hovering on the receding backrush and then skipping over the uprush; leaping into the sand and retrieving my board from the surf, in search of the next wave before the last had disappeared. Arnold picked up a bulbous seaweed clump (a soccer goalpost in a previous life) and skimmed with it in hand, lugubriously tossing leafy strands in his wake like a flower girl at a wedding procession. Grace and Nellie came down from the porch to give skim-boarding a try. Boris appeared too.
“Where the hell have you been?” I asked him.
“Around,” he grumbled, flashing a reticent smile and erupting into a coughing fit. His tufts of blonde hair seemed more disheveled than ever. “Ah, Grace and Nellie!” he cried, swiveling to address the pair of them and kissing their hands like a statesman. “If it isn’t two of the most beautiful and upstanding women our school has ever produced. How are you both enjoying your Senior Week? Nellie, have you been organizing marches, setting the agenda? And Grace, I hadn’t seen you, did you just arrive this afternoon?”
Boris was charming when he felt like it. He could conjure up his patrician manner; he could consist of easygoing nods, witty comebacks and pertinent anecdotes. The sincerity of the temperamental overhaul made you forget he could also be a drunken maniac pining to slit a friend’s throat for playing a prank.
Except for Arnold, we all sucked at skim-boarding. I fell twice, once on my shoulder and once on my ass. The girls were wise and not trying too hard. Boris, however, was a pitiful sight. He tossed the skimboard without a hope of staying upright. He leaned too far back and the board shot out from under his feet. He’d land on his ass and pull himself up again, laughing forlornly, as if physical pain were a laughing matter. Maybe it was a laughing matter to him, and maybe it was the sentimentality of the night, but as I listened to his forlorn laughter, watched him exchange pleasantries, felt his aura of vitality – a ray of hope enlivened my heart and I declared he would survive; he would prosper; he would become the most distinguished alumnus our school had ever produced – if only he stopped tossing the board without a hope in the world of staying upright, if only he weren’t so content with forlorn laughter, if only the sheen of the orange sky didn’t disappear before our eyes, if only the sun would stop condensing into a pulsating red smidgeon that sunk beneath the horizon like an anchor into the ocean’s depths. And so we sat in the sand, watching, wordless.
“Look for the green flash!” cried Grace as the sun was about to vanish. Her legs quivered with anticipation; her toes beat into the sand like a drumbeat.
“The what?” asked Nellie, pushing back the mountains of red hair from her face.
“When the horizon eclipses the sun,” explained Grace, “sometimes, you’ll see a bright flash of green. Keep your eyes peeled,” she repeated with an unwavering line of sight that ran parallel to the ocean’s surface.
“Ahhh!” screeched Arnold and Grace simultaneously as the smidgeon’s last sliver sunk into the sea.
“You saw it?” asked Nellie, incredulous.
“Yes!” cried Grace.
“Hell yes!” cried Arnold, rubbing his palms together with delight, over the moon with this new experience. “John, you see it?”
Had I seen it? Perhaps a tiny spasm of green had hovered over the horizon… or was my imagination playing tricks on me?
“Fuck, I didn’t catch it,” moaned Nellie, nearly despondent. She hated missing out on things.
Boris was giggling wickedly, a giggle that soon crescendoed into a witch’s cackle as he turned to Arnold and Grace with a withering, mocking glare. His green-gray slits flashed with horrid glee.
“What’s so funny?” asked Grace cautiously, sensing Boris’ reversal in attitude.
“What’s so funny is this notion of a green flash. I can assure you, indubitably, it’s a bunch of a hokum,” rejoiced Boris with the cocksure flaccidity of Noam Chomsky assuring his audience that global warming or nuclear war would destroy civilization before the 21st century was finished.
“I don’t know about that, man… I’m pretty sure I saw it,” muttered Arnold feebly.
“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t, but regardless of whether you saw it, the fact of the matter is that a green flash is either a figment of your imagination, or an illusory optical phenomenon. Either way, it doesn’t exist,” proclaimed Boris.
“It exists if you see it,” observed Nellie. “Grace and Arnold saw it. Thus, it exists,” declared the young Descartes, but Boris had already sprung to his feet and started back to the duplex before she had even finished her sentence, like an obstinate child leaving the dinner table without asking to be excused.
“What the HELL is that guy’s problem?” exploded Nellie to no one in particular.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Grace, offering Nellie a reassuring arm over the shoulder. “You know Boris. Sometimes he… he’s just a naysayer sometimes. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, me, or anyone else. He just… I don’t know, he just gets in a mood – a mood where he refuses to affirm anyone or anything.”
The four of sat in the sand for a few more minutes, lazily staring at the dimming twilight, until Arnold verbalized what had been creeping into our collective consciousness.
“Oh!” remembered Nellie excitedly, “Shelly mentioned earlier that Philippa was organizing a pizza party at the duplex and paying for it with extra student government funds.” She rolled her eyes at her own invocation of Philippa’s name.
“Free food, let’s do it,” said Grace. We started back to the duplex and were greeted on the porch by a teeming crowd. Noticeably, this crowd was sober and well-dressed, standing upright and orderly in appearance with clearly demarcated circles of conversation and interaction. There were a hundred or so folks dispersed on the ground-floor of our duplex, amounting to a third of our entire senior class. Our godforsaken madhouse had been sanitized into a respectable venue for an innocent pizza party. Many of these newcomers wouldn’t’ve set foot within a mile of the duplex if they’d known what it had permitted in the past 24 hours; if they had even an inkling of the debauchery lurking upstairs. I was shocked to see Lucie, the Fulbright Scholar and stanchion of feminism; Reginald, the moral prodigy and Facebook politicizer. And of course, leaning against the wall with a gaggle of intellectual suitors, Christopher Brentwood IV, the nasal-voiced beanpole who guffawed magisterially and fancied himself a renaissance man. The Waco Crew had also arrived; they were huddled together on the porch, forming a big oval; Viraj, my former roommate, looked dapper as hell in a tie-dye bro-tank.
“Wooh! Different scene!” observed Arnold with his inextinguishable contentedness.
The sight and smell of warm gooey pizza put me in a trance. I hadn’t consumed anything but tobacco, marijuana and alcohol since Jacklyn’s half-eaten Starbucks sandwich from hours and hours ago, back when the California sun was still rising, back when another day still beckoned. I led the charge into the living room where big cardboard pizza boxes were stacked neatly on the dining room table, aside equally neat arrangements of cardboard plates, napkins, red cups, and 2-Liter bottles of Sprite and Pepsi. Philippa was standing nearby. A third of her was absorbed in a conversation with Shelly; another third was monitoring the supply of pizza; the final third was psychically one with the room’s dynamic, cognizant of its comings and goings, reveling in another feat of organizational triumph – perhaps the dénouement of Phillipa’s reign as senior class treasurer.
“Hi guys!” She cried out to us, shrilly and with a stiff smile. “Pizza’s on the table.” She shifted her body to resume speaking with Shelly but hesitated, and then turned back towards us. “Oh, and only three slices a person, please, at least at the moment.”
“And why’s that,” said Nellie with sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt. The two stared at one another, squaring off in a wordless duel.
Shelly stepped forward. “Only because Philippa – only because we want to make sure everyone who’s been invited gets a dinner out of it,” said Shelly somewhat apologetically, her face reddening.
“Yeah, because you know, it’s all our money,” added Philippa, with a tone that promised the contempt was mutual.
“Oh, of course! I was just saying that if anything,” drawled Nellie, waving her arms dramatically, as if asserting a political principle, “people should only be allowed two slices. In fact, because I care so much about the nourishment of my peers, I’ll only take one slice.” She donned a saccharine grin and took a bite of cheese pizza, all-the-while looking at Philippa.
“Hey, kudos to you for organizing this” interjected Grace diplomatically. “Nice turn out, too.”
The sides of Phillipa’s mouth tightened, straining to smile. “It was my pleasure. I saw we had one-hundred dollars left in our budget, so I figured, why not throw a pizza party?”
“Yes, yes, great idea,” said Arnold distractedly as he loaded up a plate with three slices. I followed suit and starting inhaling my pizza like a savage, smearing cheese and marina sauce over my face. Ah! Life was returning to me once more!
“Philippa,” started Shelly delicately, looking at the floor. “Did you talk to… to Mitch and Mandy? Are they and their… their people… they’re not still here are they?”
“Their customers, you mean?” said Philippa. “Oh yes, I know all about their little operation,” she seethed, turning to Arnold and myself accusingly. “And yes, Shelly, don’t worry, I told them about the Pizza Party. Naturally, they weren’t thrilled, so I said to them, ‘You can either get your fucking rats out of the house for a few hours, or I can call the cops on your racket and make life hell for everyone.’”
Nobody said anything to this. Nellie was truly horrified; Arnold seemed apathetic; Grace looked amused. I finished my pizza and filled a red cup with sprite and vodka.
“Why the hell did she give us that look?” said Arnold after Philippa had excused herself to attend to more partygoers. His pacifying spirit was thoroughly unaccustomed to conflict.
“Well,” said Shelly, “she probably thinks you guys are contributing to their business. I think she’s been keeping mental tabs on who’s been going upstairs.”
“She fucking would do that,” said Nellie.
“But it’s ridiculous!” exclaimed Arnold, gesticulating his innocence wildly. “John and I only visited the Drug Den to use their bong, right John?”
I nodded, but was that the truth? The night before… Ojas’ goodies… he’d bought them from someone… was I part of “the operation”? And if I was, why should I care? I poured another Vodka-Sprite and gulped it down more quickly than the first.
“Fuck it, and fuck Phillipa. Let’s do shots!” cried Nellie.
“Woohoo!” yelled Shelly. Her face reddened once more as she grew aware of her own Freudian slip, which seemed to sanction Nellie’s imprecation of Phillipa. Grace grabbed shot glasses from the countertop and filled them with rum to their brims, with little droplets pouring over onto the countertop.
“What should we toast to?” I asked
“Senior Week!” Cried Nellie.
“To Senior Week!” we all cried, slamming down our glasses as Nellie howled like a werewolf. The Reginalds and Lucies soon disappeared; in their place came hard partiers and leeches; before long, casual drink-sipping gave way to shot-gunning competitions and swigs straight from the bottle. Pleasant discussions were replaced by beer-pong and flip-cup; the mild chatter of a cocktail party grew into a deafening roar of howling lunatics competing against a thump-thumping stereo, whose volume Nellie was cranking up and down as if she were revving the motor of a lawn mower. The revelry of last night was reenergizing. People began dancing like chickens with their heads cut off, and as the drinks continued pouring, folks were making out aggressively on couches and up against the wall; the porch grew inundated with cigarette smoke. I started crushing beers, big gulp after big gulp. Shelly and Arnold kept corralling me into the kitchen for more shots – tequila, gin, rum, you name it. Everyone was screaming about Sandbar, a club on commercial street. Soon, everyone was in agreement: Sandbar in an hour. The word spread like wildfire. I whooped and cried “Sandbar!” like the rest. I was up for anything and everything.