On the way in to Lebrun Hall Les checked the mail room, hoping Laura—already imbued with boundless romantic powers—had left the package she promised. There was no denying the fluttery, energized excitement in his heart.
There was indeed a package for him. It was wrapped in brown paper with string, too big to fit into his mail slot, and instead just sitting on the counter with “Les Paul Miller” written in big letters in a loopy girly hand.
He breathed deeply and consciously allowed himself to enjoy this pleasure. He’d done a good job this morning, he deserved something sweet. He’d read many people on their death beds complained that they hadn’t allowed themselves much pleasure in life.
He took the package straight out of the building and into the sun. He headed for a favorite bench in the gardens between the student union and the bookstore. He let his gaze drift over the grass and watched the flocks of students coming out of the buildings, and criss-crossing the mulched gardens. He unwrapped the package carefully, feeling decidedly sentimental about the whole experience.
First, was a small folded handwritten note, Don’t despair, I’ll be back in just a few days, and we’ll be able to explore all the things you want to explore. I have always found great people full of perfect honesty and huge passions. My friends are as big as all the sky. Yours in admiration, Laura. Les chuckled to himself, the “yours in admiration” tickled him. Under the note was a photocopy of a George Saunders story taken out of a New Yorker magazine. She had inscribed it with: This to me is a perfect love story. Saunders was one of Les’s favorites and he had forced Pastoralia on Lea just so he could say to her “No goat, no note.” Under the story was a computer diskette, and a cassette tape. A note described the contents of each. The diskette would have a few pictures she wanted to share. The cassette tape had music from a radio show she did some years ago. Finally, there was a book, a copy of Lewis Nordan’s Sharpshooter Blues. He opened the book and found she had inscribed it in distinctive, small, printed handwriting: Les- for me this book was a catalyst that helped me change my fear into hope. Maybe it will work on you too. Then she had drawn a heart with an L in the middle of it. And then a new paragraph, Or maybe your problem is you’re a Yankee and need to be converted to Southernism, happens all the time. Here she added a smiley face.
My problem. . . . My problem? Well, she could not help but have noticed a few things. . . .
Les’s mind was flying. There were gifts he wanted to give her, and there was an insistent desire to open himself to her. He wanted her as his people. He had often chided himself for never initiating with the women he was interested in, and instead being passive, taking what came to him rather than taking what he wanted. This was the first time he really felt like he’d hunted and chased and was feeling a thrill of victory. Before, everything had seemed a wearisome and vague dispassion. He had been like a Camus character, caring not for his life, or anything else, just drifting aimlessly, perhaps even killing without purpose or function. The sun was in my eyes. But now—was this what was meant by making the world you wanted to live in?—he had struck and won. Was it just luck or had he learned something? He felt himself uplifted and calm, but also on wires like a Cirque du Soleil performance. He sat a while longer with the materials on his lap, watching the young people flow to and fro, struggling with their loads.
She admitted to stalking behavior that only a cute woman could get away with, but her revelation of this made his guts feel light.
Well, of course, she knew about him. Maybe she had witnessed Monica and he together at a drop off, or a pick-up and assessed the breakdown. God, Monica could be a difficult charge to care for. Health professionals talked about bad patients and Monica was certainly one of these. She struggled stubbornly against solutions to problems.
Laura could easily have assessed the over-doting invalid care. But then, maybe his need wasn’t it at all. Maybe it was possible he satisfied her needs somehow? Or maybe it’s just dumb luck, and despite any detailed analyses . . . no lesson here.
Les gathered his gifts and made his way back to the lab, feeling somehow obvious, and exposed. Was the excitement evident in his walk, or face? And what did Laura mean by all this fear and hope? Was she reading something into this beyond his immediate frustrations? There was a slight ledge of paranoia in the thrill of this discovery. He was immensely aware of his vulnerability.
BACK AT THE OFFICE Dr. D was waiting for him, “Les, I could use some help,” the old professor was carefully saying something about what he needed being against policy and perhaps being something that could be misread as punishable behavior on his part, he made a lot of worried gestures, “with some yard work.”
“Oh sure,” Les quickly accepted, feeling some relief, Dr. D had a habit of turning everything into a prodigious amount of concern. But at least he’s not an alcoholic or something, Les considered.
“I’ll pay you, I know you’re going through a tough time right now,” Dr. D further explained that he had valiantly fielded some calls from Monica who was pitifully trying to convince everyone she could that she was not guilty of any wrong doing.
“Ah,” Les said, “sorry about that.”
“She’s very upset,” he said with a snicker. Less felt a twinge of embarrassed worry for Lea, hoped Monica wasn’t planning any surprises for his Latina friend.
“When do you want to do the yard work?” Les said, moving the subject on.
“I just can’t do it openly, were it to be known I was using you as a laborer,” and here he giggled some more, “there could be serious repercussions.”
“I understand,” Les said, nodding.
“Anyway, how’s Saturday for you?” Dr. D asked.
“That’s, . . . tomorrow is fine, I’ll be there,” Les chuckled. “Eight O’clock good for you?”
“Yes, that’ll be great!” Dr. D grinned and went into his rendition of the Bahama Men, stomping and singing, “who let the dogs out! Who! Who! Who! Who!” and giggling madly.
Les checked for Paulie-wallie, and noting him absent, pushed the floppy disk from Laura into the drive. He scrolled through the half dozen photos. There were a couple of Laura. She was very skinny in one of the pictures, her cheek bones stuck out gravely in the lighting. Then there were pictures of popular Japanese, mascot-like, dancing bear things. Something referred to as a Domo Kun. Les was having some difficulty understanding the appeal, he watched the Japanese cheerleader-dancing with scrunched features. It was all at least fun. These were just flat out pleasures he was determined to allow himself.
He’d been thinking deeply over the past few days about changing his overall world outlook. Changing it to something less compulsively cynical. Maybe the Dumas and Scott books had something to do with it, maybe having fled his wife had spawned this desire, whatever the catalyst, he was feeling buoyant for a change.
HE FOUND HIMSELF LOUNGING and watching a nature program at Lea’s place, while Lea snoozed under his arm, about how the Sahara had swallowed the Sudan. Once upon a time there were lush green fields and farms and cattle. Then, the sands came, the heat, the desert encroached, first just a little, and the people shrugged it off and behaved as they always did, as they had for millennia. Then, the sands came further, and the heat became more intolerable, the crops died, the summer and the winter were dryer than normal. Maybe some people grumbled then, but still people did not pack it up, they didn’t register that things had changed, permanently.
“We’re not big picture animals,” Les said to himself. And thought, we’re not good at following trends that take generations.
“Hmm?” Lea said, stirring.
“Oh, I’m just watching this documentary,” Les said, patting Lea’s rubbery behind, his lanky arm reaching all the way around and down behind her.
She squinted at the TV, “Oh, is it the one about the desert?”
“Yeah,” he said, “you know, I can’t even remember how hot it is in the summer, you know, when it’s wintertime.”
She murmured against his chest.
“And I’ve been through a few dozen of them at this point!” he looked down at her thick lashes closed over her big almond eyes.
“You know, watching this desert take over, . . . pushing the people out of their culture, . . . changing their culture, forcing them to change their culture . . .”
“They had to switch to camels,” Lea said breathily against him.
“It’s a lot like thinking about empires that eventually fall . . . like the British empire and how at one time, maybe a hundred years ago, they had it all. It must have been rough, politically and culturally to take that, sort of loss of distinction. I mean, there was a time when being British meant you could kind of arrogantly walk around the world assured of your superiority,” Les said with his customary mumble.
“If you were that kind of person, I guess,” Lea yawned and rubbed her cheek.
“It was probably great to be the king or queen of someplace, or a powerful nation who could exploit a weaker one, I mean as long as you’re not the one being exploited,” Les said.
“As long as you are not the Incas,” Lea whispered, tickling his chest hair with her breath.
“I worry about missing things, I worry that we’re here messing around, and the world is really changing, things are really happening somewhere, and we could be part of it,” Les dropped his arm on the bed with a thud.
“You mean like a revolution?” Lea said softly.
“Or, well it could be anything really, art, music, a Greenwich Village folk music thing, a Dadaist art movement, I don’t know, . . . I can’t think of examples of anything that aren’t already hugely well defined,” he dropped his hand on the bed again.
“You don’t like parties,” she nuzzled his chest. “Besides there are many bad things, it takes history to point them out, but you could be right in the middle of something now, it’s just hard to see it from inside.”
“Or maybe there’re chicks dancing in thongs someplace, doing shots off one another’s sexy bodies, and here I am lazing away . . . watching a show about the desert.”
“With me!” Lea said, smiling softly, clinging to him, “giving me comfort, what could be more important?”
“I worry about our last moments of life, you know, struggling for consciousness just before we die and all we’ll have is some bullshit like a Doublemint gum advertisement, or Mr. Whipple squeezing goddamned toilet paper, . . . snuffing us out. It won’t be some bright light at the end of a tunnel, it’ll be some sequence of events etched into my mind about Sleestak, Cha-ka and Claymation dinosaurs!”
“What you are talking about is directionless, you are frustrating yourself for nothing.”
“Hmm, say that last bit again,” Les squeezed her plump bottom.
“Te frustras por nada,” she smiled, opulently rolling all her rs.