North Florida Style
When Williams had daydreamed about breaking and entering, he'd focused on the breaking more than the entering. He'd imagined the sound of window glass smashing and thought of the whole business as something violent, something dangerous and exciting, the literal breaking of a house. He never imagined that living out the fantasy would be like this: sitting in Matthew Helms' bedroom, watching Elise Wilson smoke. He and Elise had broken the law to get here, but otherwise this night was no different from dozens, probably hundreds of others they'd misbehaved their way through.
Elise brought her cigarette to her lips and inhaled. She held the smoke in her lungs for a second or two and then let it go. As it exited her mouth, she leaned forward a little and sucked it back up her nose. The French Inhale looked cooler in Williams' memory. The three of them -- Elise, Helms and Williams -- had skipped school on a rainy afternoon in tenth grade, huffing and puffing and nearly asphyxiating themselves trying to master the trick. Helms had gotten it first, of course, and Elise soon followed suit. Now, five years later, the trick was still part of her arsenal and Williams still couldn't do it.
Neither Elise nor Williams had any idea where Helms was now, but they were sitting on what used to be his bedroom floor, their backs propped against the bed where he'd once slept. Williams was drunk and he was staring at his own shoes, which were lying across the room, next to Elise's shoes, which weren't shoes at all but combat boots, plain black ones that were well broken in. Williams guessed Elise had probably worn combat boots back in high school, but he didn't remember them like he remembered her black shoes with the big silver buckles, the shoes he and Helms had called witch shoes, first in admiration, later in scorn.
Elise lifted a beer out of the case they'd carried into the house with them and held it in front of Williams' face. "Natty Light," she said. "Very me and Helms."
"Very me and Helms," Williams corrected. He sat up and patted the ground beside himself. "There was an air conditioning vent -- there," he said, pointing to the intersection of the floor and the wall nearest Elise. "Helms took the screws out of the grate, so he could lift it off. He used to keep stashes of stuff down there. Beer, or --"
"I know," Elise said. "I knew about that." She grabbed the vent and tested it. The brown metal cover came up in her hand: It still worked. Staring down into the gap in the floor, she asked Williams if he remembered Dr. Helms' funeral.
"No," Williams said.
"Bullshit," Elise said. She was facing Williams now, all brown eyes and china doll skin, too close for comfort or focus.
"You were wearing a scarf," Williams said.
She retreated. "I was?"
"A big white one. I didn't know where to look when we were out at the graveside, so I looked at your scarf. It was white and the wind had gotten into it, and it was --"
"It was what?"
Williams still thought of her scarf that day as the whitest thing he'd ever seen: not bone, not ivory. "It just reminded me of that Magnetic Fields song," he said.
"The one where he talks about being Isadora Duncan Two and riding around in impossibly long white scarves."
"You listened to The Magnetic Fields in high school?" Elise asked. She was fumbling with the grate. The metal was slipping through her fingers and Williams couldn't tell if she was letting it drop or fighting to hold it up and failing.
"Probably not," he admitted. "I guess it just reminded me. After the fact."
Earlier that night, Williams had run into Elise at a party.
The same group of kids who weren't quite kids anymore had gathered in the same city park to do the same drugs and drink the same beer. Doin' it North Florida Style, Williams and his friends had called it back in high school, back when they'd realized what Tallahassee was but still needed to think of themselves as part of something epic, something important. They'd had a perverse, almost reverse, pride about Doin' it North Florida Style then. That was back when doing it had been funny or rebellious, back before it had become habitual, a reflex.
It was she who walked over to him, broke the ice.
"Nice to see you again," Williams had said. It was a lie. In Williams' head, Elise was still Helms' girlfriend, even if she wasn't anymore and hadn't been for years. And even if Williams and Helms no longer spoke, there were still loyalties to be upheld, loyalties that made Elise a sworn enemy.
"I thought you were getting out of this town," she said, "never coming back."
Williams shrugged. "Home for the summer."
"Couldn't find a job up there in the big city?"
Williams started to say something and Elise cut him off: "Oh. Right. I forgot: You're a rich asshole. You don't need to work." Williams' face stung from knowing that that was both partially true and partially not. Still, letting Elise think he was living a life of leisure seemed better than admitting that he hadn't been on the ball about getting work in Atlanta, or that he was now gophering in his Dad's office, living off of irregularly-timed handouts from the old man until school started again.
Then Elise did something Williams had never seen her do before: she backed off the attack. She shrugged her own shoulders, exhaled a long stream of cigarette smoke and said, "Whatever. At least you got out for little bit."
"You didn't?" Williams asked, genuinely shocked. She'd talked about getting out. They all had, but Elise was actually smart. "You're at FSU, then?"
Elise rolled her eyes, stuck her tongue out. "Did a semester, kind of freaked out. I'm still at The Mill." Still waiting tables, Williams realized. Still living off tips.
Williams sighed. "Look, I don't know what's up with --"
"Me and Helms?" she asked. Her honesty reminded Williams how much he'd always hated it.
"Yeah, I mean, if you all are still --"
"We're not together."
"I know. I just meant -- in touch."
"With Helms? No. Are you?"
Williams shook his head no.
What began as nostalgia, as a drive by Helms' old house, had quickly evolved into breaking and entering. Moments after it began, Williams could no longer remember who had started it. One of them, half joking, had suggested they break in. The other had said that they remembered where Helms had hidden his spare key. Then they weren't laughing anymore, they were sneaking up to windows and peering inside. An empty car port and darkened interior lights encouraged the two obsessives, egging them on from nostalgic to criminal.
On the outside, the house -- Helms' house -- was much the same as it had been: brown and tan. Williams and Elise half expected Helms' mother to greet them at the door, but she no longer lived here, nor did he. The last they'd heard he was finally in college, miles away in another North Florida college town. Beyond that, word of mouth failed them.
Elise led him through the hedges to the side of the house, to a mortar-less brick that she moved aside to find Helms' old spare key. "Nothing ever changes around here," she whispered. Williams half-laughed, his lungs inhaling warm, wet summer air. Swamp-gas, Helms had called it.
The deadbolt on the front door was not the only part of the house unchanged by its new owners. Inside, much was the same: High ceilings. Large windows. L-shaped corner couch. White-countered bar in the kitchen.
"He told me that this young couple bought the house," Elise said. "Just married, no kids." Williams nodded, knowing how much Helms' mother would have loved the idea of a new family starting here, of former-fraternity Frank and sorority Cindy locked in non-stop breed-a-thon, a race to fill the four bedrooms. "They loved the house," Elise continued, "but they couldn't afford a lot of new stuff. Helms told his mom to sell the furniture to them cheap."
Before starting their tour, they went straight to the kitchen, straight to the liquor cabinet. They pretended it was Helms' parents' vodka they were shooting. "Can you believe we ran into each other?" she asked. "There? Tonight?"
"A.J. Henry Memorial Blowjob Park?"
Elise looked at him.
"That's what Helms and I called it," Williams said. "Every guy we ever knew got his first blowjob there."
"Helms did," Williams said. "From you."
"You sound jealous," she said.
"Not of him," Williams said quickly. "Of you? Maybe. For a little bit. Not now. I never really -- it's not like I was thinking of Helms when I --" Trembling, Williams made a hand gesture: a mostly closed fist shaken up and down. He was worried that she might challenge him on this point. She didn't. "Maybe I did?" he said, "Once? A long time ago. Ninth grade, probably. It was weird. I don't even think I finished."
Elise still didn't say anything. Williams did a shot. "That guy," he said when he finished, saying anything just to say something, "The one you were with tonight, at A.J. Henry? Are you blowing him?"
Elise stopped the vodka bottle in mid-air, mid-refill. "You think just because you see me at a party with some guy that I'm blowing him?"
"No --" Williams said. "No, I just mean --"
"I am," Elise said.
"What? You asked."
"That guy was --"
"Ponytail," Williams said. "That guy had a ponytail. And jean shorts. Hemmed jean shorts."
"So did you."
"In tenth grade! And I never had a ponytail."
"His name is Jan."
Williams laughed. "Isn't that a girl's name?"
"It's his name, David."
"Don't call me that," Williams said.
"Why not?" she asked. "It's your name."
"Not the one I go by."
It was Elise's turn to laugh. "You just couldn't stand to be David, could you?"
"What? You never called Helms 'Matthew.'"
"I gave him that nickname," Elise said. "Back in middle school I started calling him Helms and then other people started calling him Helms and then it stuck. He didn't make it up."
"I didn't make Williams up. It's my middle name."
"Whatever you say," Elise said, "David."
"David's a better name than Jan. Where'd you meet that guy anyway?"
Elise, focused on filling the shot glass, looked down.
"What? Where'd you meet him?"
"Work," she said, tipping the shot back.
"Oh my God," Williams said, his hand slapping the counter in disbelief. "Oh my God. He's your boss. At The Mill. Isn't he? You're fucking your boss?"
"He's the kitchen manager," Elise said. "And who are you fucking these days, David?"
There was no answer to give and so it was easier to sit in silence a few minutes, with nothing but the shot glass and the liquor and business of using these two things between them. When they finally left the kitchen, Williams could still feel the vodka -- thick and transparent -- coating his throat and tongue. He wasn't sure Elise wanted him following her anymore, so he held back a few steps at first. To his surprise she never turned around, never screamed him away.
They wandered towards the one room in the house neither of them had ever spent much time in, Helms' parents' bedroom. It was the room Dr. Helms had come home to die in. Afterwards, Mrs. Helms had moved into another room in the house, leaving this one clean but empty, a shrine no one called a shrine, a room Williams had always dreaded passing by.
Now it was just a bedroom again, with nothing scary in sight. The new owners had hung prints on the walls, pastel seascapes and water-color sailboats not all that different from what had hung on the walls in the funeral home the day Helms and his mother had received friends. Williams knew that the new owners had gotten the prints from a framing store in the mall. He knew it because the same framing store had been one of his and Elise's and Helms' favorite mall destinations, the source for the M.C. Escher and Ansel Adams prints they'd papered their own walls with, the ones they'd thought daring, alternative.
The bedroom opened out onto the back patio, and past that, the pool. They walked out to it -- Crayola blue under a Crayola black sky -- and when Williams turned around, he was surprised to see Elise topless, with breasts so small he thought it was a boys' chest at first. "C'mon, get in," she ordered, stopping when she saw him staring. "What?"
"Sorry," Williams said. "It's been a while."
"Since you've seen tits? How long?"
"A long while."
"Yeah," Williams said, pulling his own shirt off. "Senior year, maybe?"
"Oh God, right," Elise laughed. "You fucked Jessica Stuart."
"I think she fucked me. I was drunk."
"She was a cunt."
"She used to say the same thing about you," Williams said. We all did, he thought sorely. The Wilsons: Tabitha, Elise, Bree. No money girls with new money names, girls loved by the would-be bad sons of good mothers. Skinny dipping with her now, in Helms' pool that was no longer his, did not seem like much of an apology for the things Williams had said about her over the years, much less the things he'd thought.
He watched Elise drop her pants and dive in. Then he dropped his own and followed her, letting the cool blue water shock him. He saw Elise's thin, muscular legs flailing above him and, pushing the air out of his lungs in a stream of bubbles, he sank until he could wrap his fingers around the grate at the bottom of the pool and hold steady there.
He and Helms had done this together once. They'd dived down and held onto this grate, each seeing how long they could resist the ever-present need to rise, to leave. On another night, Williams had talked melodramatically about suicide and plunged in with all his clothes on. He hadn't really wanted to die. He'd wanted, just once, to cause a scene, to cause them like Elise caused them daily, hourly. He'd wanted Helms to dive in and rescue him and of course Helms had.
Mildewed slime on his fingers and an ache in his lungs, Williams realized that for all his talk of friendship -- for all the time he spent missing his first and best friend -- he had abandoned Helms, not the other way around. In college, away from his hometown, Williams told the story like this: My best friend in high school, his Dad got sick and died and then my best friend, he got all depressed and into drugs and I tried to help him but he wouldn't listen and I lost him. Telling that story didn't make it true. After his Dad died, Helms had just been drinking, smoking pot. Acid a few times maybe, but that was nothing that Williams hadn't gone on to do himself. The drugs were nothing worthy of excommunication. Williams hadn't been a Puritan in high school, he'd been a coward. He'd been afraid of Helms' father, afraid of the man himself and the way his sickness and his dying had taken his son away from Williams, the way they had moved Helms through some strange and terrible land that Williams was unable and -- he could admit it now -- afraid to follow him through.
Skinny-dipping only lasted so long. Williams and Elise both knew that they had more rooms to see. Soaking through the clothes they put back on, they carried their socks and shoes and dripped their way back to their final destination: Helms' bedroom.
It was now just a guest room: an oval throw rug on the floor, store-bought cross-stitch samplers on the wall, a green comforter and a pile of folded blankets on the bed. Williams remembered a late night phone call in high school, an English assignment Helms had struggled over: Write two sonnets, one Shakespearean, one Petrarchan, both describing your bedroom. Compare and contrast the forms. Helms had complained to Williams that his room was nondescript, that there was nothing to write about. Williams put down the phone and his own trig homework, and wrote both sonnets in half an hour. In Helms' compare and contrast response, Williams had commented that the form was limiting, that there were too many words, too much to talk about in Helms' bedroom. Now it seemed like a nice room inhabited by nice people and meaning nothing, a room ready for no one to call it home.
"Did you really throw a chair at him?" Williams asked.
"Tenth grade. Sometime in the winter. He called me after you all had had a fight. Over at your house. He said you threw a chair at him."
Elise thought for a moment, then cracked a smile. "He told me I should grow my hair out. He said that it looked nice and spunky short, but that -- spunky -- Helms said that. He really said that. 'Spunky.' When he said that it was like he never got it, never understood why a girl would chop all of her hair off, mutilate it in that little muffin of a hairstyle I had back then, just so people couldn't judge her for her looks."
Williams felt like he needed to say something, but he didn't know what. He kept quiet and Elise turned away. She wandered to the far wall and traced her hand across it. "We'd smoked so much in here that the walls were stained," she said, one finger partitioning the wall into invisible rectangles. "I helped him move out and all his posters had yellowed. All of them, but not the spaces underneath. They were clean, white."
"They must have repainted," Williams said. "The new people."
"Is white all the colors or is it none of them?" Elise asked. "I can never remember that."
After Elise's question about the funeral and his own confession about her white scarf, Williams didn't know quite what to say. He and Elise sat there in silence, each of them dripping onto the carpet and nursing their beers. After she finished her cigarette, Elise laid down on her back. She wasn't wearing a bra and her pink nipples had soaked through her tank-top. When she raised her head a little and lifted her arm to take a drink, Williams could see stubble in her armpits.
"I'm sorry," he finally said.
"Sorry for what?"
"For what I said. Earlier."
"About Jan? You're not sorry about that."
"No, I am," he said. "Sorry. For that. For everything."
"For -- shit, I don't know -- for not letting you be a part of it."
Elise sat up and looked at him. "A part of what?"
"We -- I -- called you stuff," Williams stammered, "we said things -- about you."
She dismissed Williams' apology with a wave of her hand. "Part of what?"
"Part of what? You said you were sorry for not letting me be a part of something."
"Huh? Part of -- Oh, I don't know -- us."
"You and Helms?"
"Me and Helms. And Tim Everett -- and Ryan Page -- all of us. In high school."
"All of you what?" Elise said, leaning closer.
"I don't know! I just -- Jesus, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you couldn't be a part of it. I'm sorry we were such dicks."
She looked at him, disbelieving, and then said, "Fuck you, Williams. God, just go fuck you." He was watching Elise's arms, waiting for her to ball her fists and attack or maybe to find a chair and throw it. But there was nothing. She didn't do anything. She just stood up.
Immediately she reached for her boots. They'd avoided sitting on the bed because they were wet, but she sat on it now, huffing a little as she threw her weight onto the mattress.
"Elise?" Williams said again. "What are you doing?"
"Going," she said.
"Home? I'm too drunk to drive you any --"
"I didn't say I was going home," Elise said, pulling her socks on. They were long and army green and much too thick for summer, with wide red stripes at the top. She yanked them as far up her calves as they would go, almost to the knee, and left them there. "And I didn't ask you to drive me anywhere." Her head turned up to look at him while her fingers laced one boot, quick and precise.
"Where are you going?"
"Anywhere," she said, starting on the other boot.
"Elise, I was just trying to --"
"I know what you were trying to do," she screamed. "You were trying to show how saintly you are by stooping down to my level -- me, that crazy girl Helms used to fuck! You were going to be oh so gracious by inviting me to play in the boy's clubhouse, now, years after it closed."
"Elise, that's not --"
"Yes it is, David. God, you still think there was something --" she stopped, standing in the middle of the room, looking around it and blinking. "What was here anyway? What was ever here? Tell me, David! What the hell did you ever do? You or Helms or any of those stupid boys you were friends with? What did they ever do? What was so great about whatever it was that you get to pardon me -- now -- and let me inside of it?"
Williams was standing now too. They were facing each other, each trembling a little. Williams' jaw was clenched and his breath was pumping, hard and ragged, out of his nose.
"When I was here!" Elise said. "I was here all the time you were, and then some. I knew him before you did and I knew him after you did and --"
"Does that make you feel better?" Williams asked, feeling at the edge of a great drop-off. "While Jan fucks you?"
Williams was only in one fight in his life. It was at summer camp, sometime around 4th or 5th grade. He'd won the fight and bloodied Tyler Court's nose with one punch. At least that's what the other boys had told him. Williams himself, even moments after it happened, couldn't remember the fight. As hard as he thought about it, he could only bring back the feeling of immense, overwhelming frustration and then a sort of angry, physical blur. Then the whole thing was over. That's how this was. He said what he said and knew that something bad was going to happen and then it did -- Elise screaming something about him being stupid and her being worse for giving him a chance -- and then he was half-sitting, half-lying on the carpet, holding his face and wondering if his own nose was bleeding this time. He couldn't tell.
" -- just like them," she said, standing over him. "You're just like -- no, you're worse. You should -- you do know better and you still --"
He said her name again, as much to stop her from kicking him as anything else. His hand was still protecting his face.
"You could have been a fag," she said.
"I am a --"
"No. Really been one. Been something different instead of one more --" She stopped, turned away. "There are plenty of boys, David. Thousands of boys."
After she left, Williams sat in the room a little while longer. He wanted to steal something but all he could think to take was the air conditioning grate. As soon as he picked it up he could hear her telling him that it was just an air conditioning grate, that any house anywhere in the world had ones exactly like it and that this grate, from this house, didn't mean anything except continuing to fool himself.
On his way home, he passed her. She was walking on the right side of the road, her back to oncoming traffic. It was insane, her walking home, across town, at this hour, but there she was, really doing it, cutting a swath through the high grass on the side of the road. He didn't look at her as pulled his car to the left, taking a wide sweep around her. He didn't imagine that she looked at him either, and even if she did, he was sure she couldn't see into the car. Still, he reached over and slid the grate off of his passenger's seat and into the darkness of the floorboard, just to be safe.