"I bet that it will rain today," I say to Amber, looking at the gray clouds as we walk to Holy Cow.
"I say it will not!" she says, instantly taking up the contrary.
"What are the stakes?"
She considers the clouds for a moment. "If it rains... I will give you a kiss."
"You will do that anyway," I say.
"It will be an especially good kiss. With tingly lip gloss."
I roll my eyes. "Fine. And if you win?"
"You will buy me ice cream."
"I will do that anyway. You are bad at gambling."
Sarah, who came to Red Hook to spend a day off, does not speak much but she seems amused at our banter. It likely helps that Amber follows behind us and recites from a book of Ogden Nash poetry she found in a dumpster at Bard, and which is always with her since.
After ice cream (for which I pay while glaring at a roiling sky), we are at a loss for direction, but I know that neither Amber nor Sarah will be willing to make a decision. I tell them that we are thus going to go to Bard, because Sarah has never been there except via glimpses of it in my novels and spending the day wandering the campus is unlikely to be a waste of her time.
There no longer are dumpsters full of all the nearly new things Bard students could not convince themselves to lug home, so we instead walk toward Blithewood, the garden that features prominently We Shadows. I reiterate bits from my book - such as that the stones are piezoelectric and spark when struck, though it would be invisible in daylight - while I show them the statue that my character beheads. We wander and talk over college and its associated indiscretions.
"Can you imagine the amount of ill-advised sex that has occurred on this campus in the last week?" I ask.
"I didn't have that in college," Amber says.
"Yes, well, you were not a Bard kid. There is a sense of direness and drama that seems to infuse their every action. No one has ever felt as deeply as they!" I proclaim, swinging on a pillar.
I feel a drip and Amber suggests we get under cover of the gazebo just in time to avoid a downpour, joined by a girl about to graduate and her extended family. I overhear her discuss how many people crash the closing festivities at Bard every year, which seems to be a fine sport. It is as though she is acting as the mouthpiece of the Universe, passing on a potentially suggestion for the rest of our day.
Her grandmother says, "Do they get in any trouble?"
"Nah, the security really doesn't care much. Even if you are caught - and you won't be - they'll probably just let it slide."
"Criminal activity is no fun if there isn't the chance of punishment," the grandmother - hunched in a white and pink flock - replies, earning my sincere appreciation.
The deluge lets up enough that Amber, Sarah, and I take the opportunity to examine some of the tents that are set up above the garden for the festivities to come. I recall one of Melanie's stories about a fairly debauched party occurring last year in a tent but, examining these, they all seem insufficient. The rain picks up again and I content myself trying to get close-up photos of droplets until it ebbs enough.
We walk around snaking paths until Amber notes that we are passing the Bard museum.
"My college didn't have a museum!" she bemoans.
"We should go in," I say, already guiding them toward it.
"It looks closed," says Sarah, but the doors open just the same.
A docent stops us as I poke at the reading material at the front bench. "We close in fifteen minutes," he says, meaning he would like us to go now.
"That's enough time," I assure him, then pick up a pair of old school 3D glasses from a stack on the bench. "Are these needed for the exhibits?"
"No..." he says uncertainly.
"Good," I say, putting them on and plowing through the doors. There is hardly enough time to really see even a single room, though I am propelled more by the momentum of trying than absorbing the essence of any modern art work. It is all fairly standard, awkward, self-taken erotic photographs and exhibits that seem like the set-ups to elaborate practical jokes.
We exit a few minutes before the museum closes. The sun has come out again and I point out to Amber that I had technically won the bet, even though she is digesting her ill-gotten spoils.
"Fine, a bet is a bet," she says, fishing through her bag for the aforementioned tingly gloss. The kiss is every bit as good as the ice cream, I am certain.
(I have no justification for using this picture, except it was the same day.)
How Sarah puts up with us, I cannot imagine.
We stop by the Student Union Building, where there are many people milling about, many of whom seem too old or too young to be Bard students. My company and I fit in well enough that I try to eavesdrop where and when this tent party will take place tonight. I do not quite know why I would want to go to this party - the stories ringing in my brain are not the most complimentary and it does not sound like my scene - but I feel as though I must be there. As I stand next to people and will them to divulge the information I won't ask for directly, I discover a whole table of programs for the weekend's events. Flipping through it, I am unsurprised that the infamous tent party is nowhere mentioned.
On the other hand, there is talk of a cocktail reception in front of what I presume to be the art center. I encourage my companion in the direction, promising them stories, art, and cocktails and hoping that they find one of the above intoxicated enough to allow my current obsession with the tent party.
As we wander from the building, I am awash in time slips I think better than to mention aloud. Here is where I saw Melanie in the flesh for the first time. There is where I refrained from cuddling with a few girls at Summer Scholars. There is where I realized how poor I was, how I would not be able to make rent that month, just before going to visit Jinx. That is the dorm where I spent a few illicit weekends with Melanie, or weekends where she almost broke up with me. These ghosts follow me and I try to ignore them because I am on a mission that has little to do with most of their haunting.
Bard has this unfortunate inclination toward naming their building similarly. I arrive at the art center and see nothing suggesting we are in the right place. I duck my head in and look around the emptiness of the gallery long enough to be certain I am misled. Amber takes this opportunity to get lost while looking at the student studios, something she never has access to as an art major at York College.
We pull out a campus map and find that the other building with the same name is clear across campus. Just as we set to our trudging, one of the golf cart ferrying parents back and forth stopped abruptly. "You guy want a ride somewhere?" asks its driver, a boy with a jovial face I like on sight, and not simply because he is offering me a ride.
"Yes, we absolutely do," I say as he tells a few people to get off his cart to make room for the three of us.
We arrive and the reception is well underway, thus at its prime to be infiltrated by three unobtrusive people. I count at a distance ten different brands of liquor I could not afford and a dozen servers threading through the crowds of parents who ignore them. I note, too, that not a one of the crowd is dressed with any degree of casualness. This might as well be a ritzy wedding for how well we would currently fit in.
"This would be an excellent time for a pocket-sized, dehydrated suit," I note, looking at my jeans and t-shirt with contempt.
"Do we have anything like that?" Amber asks.
"We do not. You could probably work it, you have a dress. Do you want to crash it anyway?" I ask, but I don't have it in me to maintain a ruse for a few drinks and some snacks, so I am not disappointed when they both hem and haw.
Instead, I direct them toward a bridge leading to an artificial island, surrounded by a goldfish pond. I take off my sandals and dip my toes in, delighting in the fish examining my feet by nibbling. This structure did not exist when last I had occasion to be here and, aside from being an excellent setting for scenes in my books, it seems to serve no other purpose than contemplation and toe nibbling. A small, blonde girl with distracted parents all but dives in after tadpoles and I curse that my camera had decided to give up earlier in the day.
Sarah mentions that she is hungry - and not for the challenge of charming Bard waitstaff to give us hor d'oeuvres. We walk to where golf carts are transporting those who have grown weary of cocktails. I smile at a driver, who sneers and says they are only carrying parents back to the Student Union Building. Given our clothing, she doesn't have to question that we do not belong in her nearly empty golf cart, so she takes off without another word.
Halfway back to the SUB on foot, a golf cart pulls alongside us. The driver is none other than the boy who brought us here, who insists he bring us back after dumping a few passengers.
Sarah goes home after dinner and I sit around my apartment with Amber for a few hours, feeling unresolved, as though there is something I have left undone, a kettle on the backburner. Amber picks up on this and asks if I would like to go back to Bard and of course I do. I change into more appropriate clothes for any spontaneous dance parties I may accidentally happen upon and we are back on campus within half an hour.
"Back on campus" does not, however, imply a sensible direction. All we had to go on to find the infamous tent party was the folded and refolded pamphlet I had been keeping in my pocket. The closest we came was a reception in the SUB, which was filled with snacks, alcohol, parents, and karaoke. I assume that, with these, might come some inspiration for where I ought to be searching.
We walked into the reception, since no one was about to notice us or mind. I scrutinize the people, but there are few people I would be prepared to label Bard students. So where are they? I grab some wine and a handful of mixed nuts and we wander throughout the building as if to divine from snippets of conversation what we were missing.
After forty-five minutes of this, I am not ready to go home yet but I know I am not in the right place. I cannot fit this party into the narrative Melanie spun for me last year. What Melanie said she did, how the crowd reacted, simply does not fit into this shindig to distract parents and siblings. They must be distracted for some reason, hopefully to give the students freedom enough to let loose. But perhaps that party existed only once, perhaps it occurred another night without my notice, perhaps I am wasting my time.
Though Amber has not asked, I feel the question is in the air. Why do I care about this quest? What will it matter?
"It's like... if I can find this tent party," I admit, "I can shake Then-Melanie and ask her what she was thinking. Not about leaving me - that had to happen - but everything that happened between that and her leaving Bard. Everything she was trying to be in those two weeks, everything with Miss X. Everything that made me feel I had lost her even as a friend. It's not my place, I know that. I think I still resent that I could not come to her graduation. I feel like I was a part of the journey and then I was kicked to the curb when the finish line was in sight."
"But you can't shake her," she reminds me gently.
"No, she won't be at the tent party and it wouldn't matter even if I could reach through time. And she did what she thought she had to do. I would not otherwise even be too aware of this deadline, but we are here on this night. And she wrote, after everything that happened this night last year, that she watched the sunrise and missed me. It's..." I search for the right word, "grating."
We wander away from the Student Union, as this is conspicuously not where the debauchery occurred and nervously eating free snacks is not how I wish to be fulfilled.
I walk up the hill, meaning to show Amber a site from my books before giving up and returning to our apartment, when I hear the pulse of drums, almost inaudible. A grin breaks on my lips and Amber knows we have to trace its source. Maybe it is only some car with speakers meant to drown out introspection, maybe it is a dorm party we cannot crash, but I pull her along until we have passed the library and I see it.
The tent is enormous, the sort that in other circumstances could easily fit a full circus with room left over. From beneath its white flaps pours smoke. The pulse of the music has increased to a pounding thrum that one cannot avoid but feel in one's bones and the chattering of one's teeth. Or perhaps that is simply me, the edginess of being here, of finding the object of my quest despite my near unspoken certainty that I would not. I could not bring myself to ask a Bard student about this ephemeral shindig. I needed to find this on my own.
The party proper has not begun. The DJ within, set up on the stage that will hold commencement speakers and college presidents tomorrow, plays the music to attract the attention of the milling crowds, who pour in. I note that they are each getting wristbands, one color for the graduating seniors, one for the alumni. Amber expresses consternation that we will not be allowed to enter because we are none of the above. I scrutinize their movements and actions and decide that the wristbands only allow or prevent people from getting beer and that this is not a designation likely to be noticed for long, as the crowd increases tenfold in a matter of twenty minutes and those distributing refreshments all but give up. I am not here for alcohol, I do not want my senses dulled. I need to understand this beast from the inside and that can best be done by dancing.
At first maybe a dozen people dance, Amber and a few other couples and triads. This is not a time for dancing for them. The graduates' party is at the bottom of plastic cups. When they are liquored up, when they can give excuses for enjoying themselves, they will be in the tent with us. For now, it is enough that we are here.
The smoke machine belches to further life, coating everything in a cloak of haziness. The DJ projects dancing laser figures on the ceiling and I make my first steps toward dancing, but I feel restricted by the ghosts I had tried to leave behind. I cannot find my rhythm, I cannot stop looking at hipsters making a mockery of dancing because sincerity might leave them vulnerable.
Then I see Miss X, she who catalyzed Melanie's leaving, and my breath catches. She came into my job weekly to tutor my students and I remained professional as I gave the tutors as a whole direction in which residents needed what help. Miss X has never visited a word or look upon me and Melanie made clear that this was because she did not mention me to Miss X in their months of friendship and weeks of sex so as to not interfere with their "lesbian club" (the wording is not mine). My existence, to say nothing of my picture, did not fit into the narrative Melanie constructed to prepare for the inevitable end of our relationship. I cannot fully blame the Melanie I love now for the missteps of the Melanie who enjoyed this party last year, as I think she regrets how her confusion caused her to behave. I never saw cause to harass Miss X because ours was a professional relationship that did not involve the lover we had both had. She apparently did not feel the same.
Miss X proceeds to dance nearly beside Amber and me, then outright circle around us, but still pretends that she is unaware of us. She couldn't get closer to us without cutting in. This tent will tomorrow contain every graduate and their families, but she cannot find space to dance that isn't beside the former boyfriend of a woman whom she evidently saw as no more permanent or valuable in her life than a tissue. I laugh aloud.
All this makes me only wish to dance harder, because I realize how little this is their story. Sure, they can play a supporting role and central casting seems to prefer to consolidate extras to my vexation, but it's my story. I adored Bard when Miss X was in second grade. This campus was my conception of what college ought to be. It will be mine long after Miss X gets the startling realization that she is not singularly wonderful, that her pain doesn't make her beautiful or forgiven for this interruption. Prior to this, I did not dislike her as a person, just as a symbol. I did not know her and saw little cause to change that ever. Now, I understand her a bit and almost feel sorry. No one with true confidence and belief in her worth, no one who deserved to be near Melanie even fleetingly, could be so audaciously insecure with no chance of gain.
I joke to Amber that I ought to go up to Miss X and thank her, but she wouldn't understand or appreciate.
Tonight is a milestone. Since my signing at the Pine Bush UFO Festival at the end of April - the festival I attended before my last happy day in my relationship with Melanie - I have had this persistent and unwelcome awareness. Today, Melanie came down to tell me she wanted to leave me but spent the night giving me hope. Today, she called me on my lunch break and broke up with me. All of the petty dramas that felt so heavy a year ago trail behind me, not anchoring me to the moments but giving me too broad of a wake. Little of it was conscious - though I did mention to Melanie that she had been outside of serious relationships for a year (she had not been without prolonged company, but I suppose this still qualifies as being single) - but it nevertheless rattled my emotions. Other memories today were ghosts, but this breakup was a demonic possession.
As I dance, I feel unmoored. I am at an end of my mourning. Not for my relationship with Melanie, though I miss the depth of our bond at its best, but our relationship has transformed in the best way possible. I mourned for the difficult life I no longer lead and can mark the breakup as its moment of crisis.
I am done with it. I am braver, freer now. I have found a deserved confidence (I would not be dancing so readily otherwise). I can never retreat to those defenses crushed beneath my heels long before I found this tent.
Soon in Xenology: Male friendships. Lake George. Burlesque. Melanie.