Rings Around Saturn

Updated: Mar 8

Her parents are away and the house is quiet. We’re lying on her bed, and I can smell her hair, and it’s a characteristic smell that I can’t describe, but it has its own identity. I think about how dogs must go through the world being confronted by loud identities that they can’t describe but they can intimidate. A smell is a secondary experience to me, even if I can recognize it right away. But I know her well enough to know her smell, and want more of it, just because it’s something that I recognize, and being confronted with something you understand is a pleasure.

She’s telling me stories about college. She had a hard time early on. Someone stalked her, and he’d wait outside her classes for her, and then he’d send her the kinds of text messages that make you look around to check if you’re really alone. And she had a roommate who made rigid rules and who’d go to sleep at 8pm, and prohibit any noise after that, and so she would walk around Providence at night, and sleep in the library, or in classrooms. She didn’t have any sustained period of mental equilibrium. She ate badly or not enough, and after her freshman year, she transferred.

She was alone and she had no one to talk to. In New York City. Big city, lonely city, empty city when you have no one to talk to. She dissolved into her schoolwork. She got exceptional grades — her solace was straight A’s, which she got every semester. But she didn’t make any friends. She joined an environmental group, hoping to make friends, but they also had a bunch of rules and guidelines about what you could eat and how you could be — a lot of their rules were unwritten — and she couldn’t fit in with them.

I’m the kind of person where I take a long time to make friends, she says. She began to make friends toward the end of college, but then college ended, and the friendships never developed. But her voice brightens when she talks about them. Some kind of hopefulness in talking about things that could’ve been, but that never got a chance to be. Sort of like glory days hopefulness — I could’ve been a contender — except it was pre-glory, glory that never came to be, but in the shred of goodness that came of it, you think of yourself as someone who was once capable of near-glory. Better than nothing.

I think about my college days. I’m twenty-seven now. I’m not that far past it, but I am five years past it — more than five years, Jesus — and I’m only getting farther away from it. What do I feel? I’ve never been back. I envision the house I lived in at the end. The Foundry. Lived there with a number of my friends. A number of my friends, and a number of half-friends, and a few people I never cracked. One girl named Donna who never said a nice word to me even when we were speaking frankly. A guy named Lyle, who when I heard him talking to his actual friends, I realized that he was something other than a funny guy, even if he was funny — he had a sinister element to him. He was capable of saying an unkind thing, but coloring it as a joke — it wasn’t that he was cruel, it was that he could station himself as a superior creature, just by using his tone of voice, and I thought to myself (we were riding in a car at the time), What is this man capable of. He was with his friend Aaron, who owned a lot of records.

Of course I got high on the couch in the living room and watched music documentaries with Roy, who lived down the hall, over October break, and even while we smoked and smoked, and our eyes got red and the skunky taste of smoke saturated our throats, I wondered in the back of my mind why I was so lazy and useless. Always that thought under the surface even in good times. How come? Some would say survival, some would say capitalism, some would say parents, some would say something else with rhyme and meter — it is just the human idea. My opinion. We watched with Maryanne, whom Roy slept with in a tent by a lake.

Other people lived in that house before. Noctural Nick, a guy named Paul Simon (really), who had loud sex with Ginny Imas, who would emerge effulgent, with a scratched-up back. A guy whose name I forget who taught me how to roll joints after not explaining why he’d taken a semester off. But I knew why. He had suffered in some insane way and he couldn’t recover without help. Other people. Sarae Tucher, who I figured would run a brothel well if she ever got the chance. I liked Sarae. She told us very little about herself, and she smoked cigarettes indoors. Other people. People I forget. Zorana, from Bulgaria, who I might’ve told I loved, or otherwise just made very intense eye contact with.

On the bed with her in the deepening night my heart gets heavy. How come? In my mind, I station myself outside the Foundry, and I look at the stoop. Arty hopefuls smoking cigarettes and maybe drinking a glass of something brown. Utterly knowledgeless about the actual world but feeling very cool. The sun seems always to be setting and Autumn seems always to be approaching. I think of the house as surrounded by green even though it was winter for what felt like six consecutive months. My heart gets heavy. I sigh in the room with her, and she asks me why.

I was also a friendless creature for a long time, I say.

What happened? she says.

No clue, I say. Which is true in a sense but untrue in another. The person that I was who had no friends before college was the same one who, in college, had a lot of friends, and found it easy to have more friends. And so in one way, nothing changed inside of me, but something changed outside of me, and I couldn’t reconcile those two things.

But it’s untrue in the sense that I know what happened. I met people who liked the things that I liked and had the kind of values that I had. And I wanted to be friends with them more than anything else. Certainly more than grades, which I never cared intensely about, but which my parents cared intensely about, and so I did what I could to appease my parents. But I got almost no social education. In high school, I got almost no social education, and it made me feel socially starved.

In college a social education was the only thing I cared about. I had access to it because of the similarities and the values and the things in common with my classmates, and I also had access to it because I played music. Music opens doors. I won’t say anything more about myself as a singer except that I’ve seen people’s hearts open when I open my mouth to sing. I’ve witnessed it, and so I know that it happens. Music established my first channels to people in college, and after that, I was in good shape.

But also in college I was distracted by the fact that nothing had changed and that people were treating me differently for no good reason, but I ignored the distraction. I spent less and less time on school and more and more time on my social life. I smoked a lot of weed. I smoked with my friends behind our dorm building, by some benches and a low rock wall, overlooking acres of farmland and a sky replete with stars. Almost every night. I smoked with my girlfriend in my room, when we had nothing to do, and we looked at each other and were bored by each other, but when we smoked we became tactile and interested in each other. I smoked on the quad with a small group and got caught by a campus safety officer and fined $50. Because I confessed. I smoked before classes, between classes, after classes; I smoked before parties, then instead of going to parties, and sometimes instead of going to class. I smoked before I went to go talk to a professor once and found it very hard to talk to him. I smoked before a music class, then found my professor’s comments profound. I smoked playing video games and I smoked out of a vape pen and I smoked out of a water bong, a gravity bong, and a bong called the Necronomicon. I smoked beyond the point that I could maintain a grasp on reality and my friends had to carry me to my room because I was too scared to move. I smoked while watching music videos and could see the maker’s hand. Hello maker, I mumbled without noise.

What are you thinking about? She says.

College, I say. Stuck in the past.

I was ravenous for friends because I’d had hardly any for a long time, and I’d never done anything that young people were supposed to do. My heart gets heavier still. Why? Because all these things happened in the past and were done in the name of hope. Hope for what? For a kind of interpersonal unity that you can envision and somehow feel, but you rarely have access to. Probably beatniks wrote about it, and I obsessed over it. I can see the face of a guy named John who I had a kind of crush on — I wanted his approval, hankered after it, and he was taller than I, and he had a more easygoing way about him, even if he wasn’t the most perfect conversationalist.

He and I stood together outside his house (Cooker) on a rainy night, and a moth had its leg stuck in a spiderweb. You wouldn’t believe how hard it tried to get unstuck. It flew maniacally away from the spiderweb, trying to reclaim its leg, but it couldn’t get free, and so it just flew and flew and flew to no avail. We were watching something exhaust itself and there was nothing we wanted to do about it. The moth was large. Large insects are terrifying. We stood there, smoking, and we watched the bug, and felt a strange kind of sympathy, and did nothing about it.

John and I sat in his room, listening to a Who album, Face Dances, with some other friends. My friend Raj and I got locked in an idea-conversation that he apparently won by saying something very eloquent and erudite. I didn’t think it overmatched what I had said but John liked it, and some other people liked it, and they all cheered the way you cheer when your team sinks a winning shot, and the force of the plaudits meant he had won. There was a kind of competitiveness in intellectual debates. A twice-refracted spat over scraps of food.

I need some water, she says.

There’s a song I like by Aimee Mann called “Stuck in the Past.” The first verse is:

Stuck in the past

Just drawing rings around Saturn

The shadow is cast

But now it follows a pattern

Love that rhyme, Saturn/pattern. Rings around Saturn. How is it like that? Well, Saturn is so far out, it’s a distant idea, something you can dream about or visualize but never actually visit, and it’s appealing for that reason. You might doodle it in your notebook, and then you’d draw rings around it. Maybe you’d obsessively draw rings about it, get hung up in an interior concept, and lose time that way. Lose time. Or more metaphorically, you travel in your mind as far as Saturn. It will take you a long time to get back.

The shadow is cast — yes, memory is large, and it casts a shadow — But now it follows a pattern. You see a pattern and you become obsessed by it. Far off as Saturn, shadow as big as the second-biggest planet, a hidden pattern. You’re far out and obsessed. Yes. Plus, imagine Saturn’s gravity — how would a human fare? Not well.

I find myself near tears. I can hear her walking in another room. Faucet on, cup filled, faucet off. I'm twenty-seven. I have always tried to be acutely aware of my age, and act accordingly. I remember when I was twenty-two, and I met someone who was twenty-four, and I thought to myself, I’m going to be twenty-four before long. And I knew then that youth was a vapor. Twenty-seven now. I’m young and I will be for a long while yet. But I have never been brought to tears by just a memory before. My heart has not been made so catastrophically heavy that I must empty it of its tears. I’m mournful not of pain, which leaves the body or wounds it but is material — I'm mournful of time.

Good times. College was good times. Even if I was hungry for something that couldn’t really happen, and if my hunger sometimes made me do foolish things that hurt me or hurt other people, even then, it was good times. Overall. I’m twenty-seven now. Some good times now are gone. They do not come back, and when you go look at them in the spyglass of your mind, they make your heart heavy. They have giant gravity and so they make your heart heavy. You return to your present moment by weeping, by becoming weightless.

She offers me the cup. I drink from it. The tap water tastes strange, but it’s a taste I come to associate with her, her house, being here.

Better? she asks.

Better, I say.

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