Chapter Six - Concrete and Peppermint
Mark called and asked me what was up. I had plenty to tell him.
“So, you’re in a punk band?” Mark asked, with a hint of disbelief in his voice.
“Not in it. Just working with it. Near it.” I was sitting at the desk in my room, holding my phone in one hand and a pencil in the other, randomly jotting down song ideas in a notebook. “Hey, wait. I tell you that I’m gay and that I’m writing for a band, and it’s the band thing that gets your attention?”
“Well, yeah. I can picture you being gay. Hanging out with a punk band, though…that’s unexpected.”
“So, me liking guys was expected?”
“No. Just…hell, I don’t know. It’s not obvious or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I didn’t know until you told me. I just thought you were weird.”
“Likewise. Hey, what rhymes with ‘vegan shoes’?”
“Cheatin’ crews? Bleatin’ ewes? Meat-in-glues?”
“How’s this sound? ‘Watch your back, meat-eatin’ dudes, I’ll kick your ass with my vegan shoes. Line up, form a beatin’ queue, you carnivorous cretins, you.’”
“I know.” I sighed and crossed out the last few lines. The burnt CDs that Corey had given me for “homework” had a collection of songs whose lyrics consisted of only four topics: politics (including the political implications of veganism), love, death, and ass-kicking. I’d never had any experience with death, knew next to nothing about love, and had never been on either side of an ass-kicking. That left politics. I didn’t know much about politics, either, but it seemed like it would be easy to fake it, especially the animal rights stuff. Turns out I’m not that good at faking it.
“Maybe you shouldn’t rhyme so much. You sound like a militant Doctor Seuss.”
“Yeah. All right, new direction – what doesn’t rhyme with ‘vegan shoes’?”
“Awesome.” I scratched down a few more words. “So, what’s college like?”
“It’s all right. There are a bunch of places that I’m not allowed to go.”
“What’d you do?” I remembered seeing something on the news about how a few big colleges had nuclear reactors, and I found myself hoping that Mark’s school wasn’t one of them.
“Nothing. They don’t take early graduates into account when they set stuff up. There’s all these signs that say ‘no persons under eighteen years of age permitted without adult supervision’, and since I’m seventeen…well, I can’t get into any computer labs or anything. Because, apparently, as long as I’m a few months short of eighteen, I’m way too irresponsible to be around a computer.”
“Well, there was that one at school…”
“Hey, I panicked. No one told me that you could just pop the keys back on. And the art wing was right there.” Thanks to that incident, all hot glue guns are now kept under lock and have to be signed out. The art teachers call it “The Collier Rule”. It’s as close to fame as our family’s ever gotten. “Well, I’ve got to get going. Talk to you later.”
“Later.” He hung up, and I turned my attention back to my notebook. Songwriting was harder than I had guessed.
“I’ll kick your ass with my vegan shoes…” I mumbled to myself, tapping my pencil. I reached for a burnt homework CD and put it in the portable CD player I had liberated from Mark’s room. I scribbled down some free-association notes as I listened. Yeah, I could write the stuff, but I didn’t want to. No inspiration at all; just cranking it out of the word factory. This was no good.
On Wednesday, I paid attention in History class. It was a first. My teacher had a habit of reading straight from the book for a few minutes, then getting side-tracked into talking about something else for the rest of the period. That meant that you could zone out, pass notes, or whisper back and forth for the entire class, read the chapter at home, and come out knowing more about the material than the kids who paid attention. This time, though, I was looking for material.
Some of the songs that Corey had given me were about obscure political events, like the Bread and Roses Strike, the Hudson River Valley Rent Rebellion, and other seemingly random stories of peasants revolting against The System. I was hoping to pick something up. No such luck. Our teacher had launched into a story about golf. Golf – not only is it a sport, but it’s widely known as the sport of rich white men. There was no way I could walk in there and hand them a song about golf.
I tried to pay attention that day. I really tried. Every man has a breaking point, and as it turns out, mine is just shy of thirty minutes of golf chat with a history teacher. I let myself zone out for the rest of the class.
For the rest of the week, I wrote as much as I could. Lines and lines of the stuff. Page after page. The problem was, I didn’t like any of it. I didn’t know what was going on – usually, I had no problem writing things. When Corey and Alex came to pick me up on Friday, I didn’t have a single song that I actually liked. I just hoped that the band would like some of it, because I didn’t want to lose my first ever non-parent-related job. Once again, we parked on the lawn.
As soon as we were downstairs, Scott cornered me. He’d grown half of a beard since I’d last seen him. Literally, half of a beard. He’d only shaved the right side of his face. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, or if he had just gotten distracted halfway through and wondered away from the mirror. “You write anything?”
“Yeah. I’m not sure exactly what you guys are going for, so I wrote some different stuff. If you like one, I can write some more like that.” I handed him my notebook, filled with attempted lyrics. He snapped it out of my hands, shouted “woo”, and flopped into a far corner of the basement, flipping through it.
Carl and Sarah were sitting on one of the couches, watching something on TV. I noticed that Carl’s hair was now cut short and free of spikes, neatly combed but still dyed stop-sign red. We joined them, but Alex remained standing.
“So,” He said, “There’s a show at Val’s tomorrow. Anybody want to go?”
Carl shook his absurdly neon head. “I’ve got work.”
“You always have work. Cor?”
“Val’s, huh?” Corey said. “Is it going to be like the last one? More of that cuddlecore shit?”
“Not a fan.” He raised his palms and tipped his head foreword. “Don’t get me wrong, I like knee socks and unicorns and keyboard solos as much as the next guy – as long as the next guy isn’t you – but I like my music to have…uh…”
“Balls!” Scott shouted from the other side of the room.
Corey pointed to him and nodded.
“Aw, come on. Sarah? You’re not hung up on balls, are you?”
She didn’t bother looking away from the screen. “Not my thing, kiddo.” Her head seemed to rise almost an inch higher, and she looked over at me and smiled. “Why don’t you take the space-puppy? Might be his kind of scene.”
“Sarah…” Alex’s voice had a pleading, warning tone to it. She stuck out her tongue in his direction. I felt like I had just missed an entire chunk of conversation. Was this some kind of open challenge? Was she mocking me? Well, I wasn’t going to let her steamroll me like that.
“Yeah, I could probably make it.” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. It should probably be noted that actively trying to sound nonchalant is just about the best way to sound chalant – and I’m pretty sure that isn’t even a word, so you can imagine how smooth I sounded.
“Really? You want to?” Alex asked, his eyes widening and his whole body twisting in my direction. Sarah laughed, and Corey shook his head.
“Yeah. I guess if I’m going to write for a band, I should go to at least one live show, right?”
“Cool.” He said, smiling. “Starts around six tomorrow. I can pick you up around five-thirty, if you want.”
“Yeah, five-thirty’s cool.” I was pretty sure I could talk my parents into letting me stay out late on a Saturday. They’d always let Mark stay out on weekends, and I figured that with my track record, they had no reason to trust me less than they trusted him.
For the next hour, we hung out, watching Sarah and Carl fight over the remote and talking about whatever popped into our heads. Every now and then, Scott would call over one of the others and whisper back and forth about the lyrics I’d written. Talk about tension. Normally, I’m the kind of guy who writes something, buries it in a notebook, and never shows it to anyone. This was the opposite of that. This was four people looking at words that I’d written and deciding whether or not to scream them into a microphone…and on top of that, it all sucked.
While waiting, I asked about how the band had gotten together. I found out that Scott and Sarah were twins, originally from Grand Rapids. They had met up with Carl at some kind of protest rally. He had wanted to move further from his parents and closer to his college, they’d wanted to find a roommate who could tolerate the occasional loud and screamy jam session, and as luck would have it, there was a house for rent in Curson with three bedrooms and a basement.
They had met Corey and Alex after the twins decided to form a “real” band. They had advertised in the Curson Free Press and at the local music and record stores, and those two were the only ones to show up for auditions. They soon discovered that even though they got along well, they sounded terrible together. Each of them had their own preferred subgenres, and none of them sounded decent when mixed with the others. The band broke up, but they kept hanging out.
Over the following year, the band had gotten back together, broken up, and then re-reunited at least five times. A few of these reunions lasted only one or two days, the result of staying up way too late and having nothing better to do. They had never chosen a band name – they always broke up before they reached the point of having to call themselves something.
After what felt like an eternity, Scott walked over and joined the rest of the group. He dropped the notebook on the center table and turned to me.
“Is this all you’ve got so far?” He asked. I nodded. “Um…honesty, this isn’t what we’re looking for.”
“Yeah.” I shook my head. “I know, it sucks.”
“Well, admitting that it sucks is the first step toward not sucking.” Scott said. “Step two is figuring out why it sucks.”
“Probably because I don’t know anything about this stuff.” I said.
“What stuff?” Alex moved to a seat next to me, getting a better view of the notebook.
“This. Politics and stuff.”
“Then why’d you write about it?”
“Because…I thought I had to. I mean, all the bands on the CD Corey gave me…they were all political bands.”
“Dude!” Alex turned to Corey. “You were supposed to give him a sampling of everything.”
“I did.” Corey said. “Some anarcho, some riot-folk, some straight-edge…”
“What?” Corey held out his hands. “’The Black Panther Song’ and ‘Sectarian Communist Party Blues’ are totally different from, say, ‘Fuck Thanksgiving’ or ‘Nakedness as Insult’. Totally different.”
“Hang on.” Alex got up, then came back with a binder. “Here. I’ll find you some stuff.”
He flipped open the binder across the table. It was filled with page after page of burnt CDs. Every now and then he’d stop and pull one out.
“Here,” He said, presenting me with a stack of CDs. “Don’t try to follow any kind of formula. Find some inspiration.”
Scott nodded in agreement and went to rest his chin on his hand. He got a funny look on his face and rubbed his cheeks, one side, then the other.
“Hey…” He looked around. “Why didn’t anybody tell me I forgot to shave this side?” He got up and headed for the door. “Been walking around like a jackass all day with half a beard…”
“I…thought he did it on purpose.” Alex said.
Carl snickered. “Actually, Sarah and I did it while he was asleep.”
“Every now and then, we try to make him think he’s even more out-of-it than he already is.” She explained.
“He slept through being shaved?” Alex asked.
“Well…asleep, passed out…something like that.” Carl said.
Scott walked back in, still with half of a beard. “You know, I kind of like it. I can’t believe I never thought of this before.”
Sarah groaned. “Every time…”
I laughed. Now that they had seen my horrible attempts at writing, the stress was gone. They were going to give me another chance. Maybe I’d find some inspiration in the new CDs they’d given me. Or maybe from the concert.
Dixie bounced a tennis ball off of my ceiling, causing my bed to be frosted with a light dusting of stucco. She’d come over just after Alex had dropped me off at home. “I’ve heard some stories about punk concerts.”
“There was this one I heard a while back. This guy I was talking to had a friend who went to a concert. Somebody bumped against him really hard when he was in the pit, so he fell and his leg got dislocated from his hip. Then, there was this other guy in the pit, who said he was a med student, so he could pop it back into place for him. When he did, though, the guy’s balls got stuck between the leg bone and the hip bone, and got crushed. Blood everywhere. And because the music was so loud, no one even knew except for the people right next to him.”
I cringed. “You know, I was just thinking, ‘I sure hope I don’t have to go to sleep tonight without hearing a story about crushed testicles.’ Thank you, Dixie.”
“Hey, any time. I’ve got dozens of ‘em.”
“I’m sure. But, I don’t know if that’s even physically possible. And if getting your testicles crushed at concerts was more than a one-in-a-billion kind of thing, there would either be a lot less people going to concerts, or a lot less teen pregnancy.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. But play it safe, and stay away from any med students.”
“If I see anybody with a stethoscope, I’ll run the other way.”
She bounced the ball against the ceiling again, causing another small cloud of stucco-dust. You’d think that after so many years of her doing that, there wouldn’t be any stucco left on that spot over my bed. I started to wonder if maybe it was growing back some how.
“So, this guy that’s taking you…Alex, right?”
“Not going to drug you and steal your kidneys for the black market, is he?” She threw the ball to me.
“Nah, I think he’d be considerate enough to only take one of them.”
“Oh, a gentleman. Do you like him?”
“Huh? Nah, not like that.”
“Then why’re you blushing?”
“Maybe because it’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me if I liked a guy.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s because you like him.”
“I hardly even know him.”
“Is he hot?”
“I don’t know.” The look she gave me said that that answer wasn’t going to cut it. “Well, yeah. But that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Is he a drummer?”
“Oh. Too bad. Drummers are hot. All that rhythmic pounding, you know?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Ms. Dixie, I’m appalled. You’re supposed to be above such things.”
“Obviously, you’re unacquainted with the twisted, sexualized underbelly of competitive spelling.” She tossed her hair and grinned. “Just as well. You couldn’t handle it. Some of the girls on the circuit can spell things that’d make a marine blush.”
“Better a marine than me.” I tossed the ball back to her, and she caught it left-handed this time.
She brought up a few good points, though – I really had no idea what to expect at this concert. I doubted that I’d end up crushed into impotence, but there was an even greater chance of just looking completely out of place. I didn’t fit the image of a punk rocker. Of course, I didn’t really fit the image of anything. I was imageless.
From what I’d seen from the guys in the band, the standard uniform was jeans and a shirt with the name of a band that no one’s ever heard of before, or sometimes the name of a band that everyone’s heard of, for the sake of subtle irony. That was no good for me, since I hadn’t heard of anybody, and I didn’t own any band shirts. I did know one thing, though. I knew which pair of socks I was going to wear.
Alex was waiting at the door on Saturday, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold. He was wearing a black sweater that looked really soft and seemed to cuddle into him. The words “I Like Japanese Hardcore” were printed across his chest in white. It looked like he had done it himself; the letters were misaligned and some of them had small lines dripping down from them, like he had picked it up before the paint had dried completely. He saw me looking.
“I don’t, you know.” He said.
“I don’t like Japanese hardcore,” He explained as we walked toward his van. “It’s a band name.”
“Oh. Are they playing tonight?”
“No. As far as I know, they broke up a long time ago. And besides, you’re never supposed to wear a shirt for the band you’re going to see.”
He paused and looked at me. “No idea. But it’s a rule.”
“I thought your whole…thing…was that you don’t follow rules.”
“Well, yeah.” He scratched the back of his head and grinned. “But we’re such rebels that we break the rule about not following any rules.”
He said it in a way that seemed serious and sarcastic at the same time. I had to wonder which side he was leaning towards.
The drive took us down a few main streets, but soon enough, we were out on the goat-paths. We pulled into a ratty-looking place in the middle of nowhere, with a dirt parking lot and a few neon signs advertising the brands of beer being sold. The word “Valentine’s” was painted on one wall. Much like Alex’s shirt, the letters were misaligned and dripping. It looked more like what my dad would call a “redneck shit-kickin’ bar” than a place for a punk show.
“Is this a bar?” I asked. “Can we even get in here?”
“Yeah, no problem.” Alex said, jumping out of the van. “It’s a bar, but this is an all-ages show.”
I nodded and followed him to the door. A guy with a shaved head and a giant beard was standing at the door.
“ID?” He asked.
Alex shook his head and held out his hands. The guy pulled a black marker from his pocket, pulled the cap off with his teeth, and drew a thick black X on the back of each of Alex’s hands. Alex handed him some cash and walked in.
Now the guy’s attention was on me. I followed Alex’s lead, holding out my hands and getting a pair of marks.
“How much?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.
“He already paid for you.” He nodded at Alex and motioned for me to go inside. That was weird on two levels: First, that Alex had paid for me, and second, that this guy didn’t just pocket my money anyway.
The inside was just as dingy as the outside. The walls were made of uneven, chipped brick, and were covered in graffiti. The lights were dim, and there was a lot of smoke. Alex was pacing between the bar and the merchandise table, waiting for me. He was walking on the balls of his feet, bouncing slightly with each step like an excited little kid. I had to smile at that.
“You ready?” He asked.
“Yeah. Hey, thanks for paying for-” I didn’t get a chance to finish, because just then, a guy and a girl, both around our age, rushed over and accosted Alex. Their shirts had what I assumed were band names - “Go Sailor” and “Tiger Trap” – across the fronts. The girl held up her hands and gave him a questioning look.
Alex laughed and nodded. Both the guy and the girl grabbed him and pulled him into a tight embrace. When they let go, he had white, chalky handprints across his chest and back.
“Uh…what…?” I looked at Alex, but before he could say anything, the two grabby kids turned to me. “Hey, hold on-”
Alex grinned at me and raised his eyebrows, then nodded to the pair again. Before I could react, they had me wrapped between them. It was weird, feeling hands all over me, not knowing whose they were. There wasn’t anything sexual about it – nothing more than a few quick, sharp claps on the shirt from each one – but for someone as hands-off as I was, it was still strange. It was over quickly, and they ran off into the main room of the building. I turned to Alex.
“What the hell?” Yeah, that about summed up my thoughts.
“Community builders.” He said. “I’ve seen them here before. They try to get their handprints on everyone in the building before the night’s over. It’s best to just let them do their thing, otherwise, they’d lecture you about learning to trust your fellow punks and stuff. Besides, you don’t want to be the only one here without prints.”
“Do…people do that at all concerts?”
“Nah. That stuff wouldn’t fly at, say, a metalcore show. But this is different.”
“Oh. Cool.” I looked down at the white handprints on my shirt. “Is this powder, or flour or something?”
“Chalk, I think. Don’t worry, it’ll wash out.”
I continued inspecting my clothes. “Oh man…”
“One of them grabbed my ass.”
Alex took a step back. “Nah, judging by the size of the prints…both of them grabbed your ass. That’s what you get for wearing such a long shirt.”
I couldn’t help it – half of my clothes were hand-me-downs, and Mark was a lot taller than I was. It was all I could do to keep from looking like I was wearing a really short dress.
A loud thumping and an ear-piercing hiss echoed through the room.
“They’re sound-checking.” Alex said, grabbing my wrist. “Come on, we’ve got to go now if we want good spots.”
He pulled me through the crowd – almost all of them wearing shirts with band names like “Cub” and “The Softies” and “Boyracer” – until we reached a spot near the front. The band on stage was mostly female. They all wore shorts and backpacks. That’s when I noticed that one of them, either the bassist or the guitarist (I can’t tell the difference from a distance) was wearing knee-socks that didn’t match. One was bright green, the other pink. I looked down at my own feet, where I was wearing the un-pair of socks that Mark had given to me on the day he left – dull grey on one side, red-and-white candy-striped on the other. Concrete and peppermint; half solid and half sweet. Of course, no one else could see them, since my jeans and shoes covered them, but it was still a cool feeling.
The girl at the microphone did some pre-performance patter – letting us know who they were, where they were from, what the name of their latest release was and where we could buy it. Then, they launched into their first song. It was nothing like the songs Corey had given me.
For one thing, no one was screaming. At all. I could actually understand the words that were being sung, and the music sounded like it was written to go together, rather than the “everyone smash the hell out of your instrument and maybe it’ll sound cool” style of the other bands I’d been exposed to. In my mind, this was what music was supposed to sound like…but at the same time, it seemed a little boring in comparison.
I looked around at the audience, who seemed to think the same thing. There were a few people swaying, mouthing the lyrics, even dancing, but for the most part, everyone was watching with a sort of detached look, not moving.
When the song ended, Alex turned to me. “These guys are just the opening act. That’s why it looks like nobody cares that they’re here – they’re all waiting until later.”
The band on stage played for about half an hour according to my watch. They picked up a little momentum now and then, but it was nothing I’d want to see again.
The second band was a little better. They, at least, moved around a bit while they were playing. Near the end of their set, they played a cover of a song that, apparently, everyone knew but me. That got a lot of people jumping around and singing along. After they left the stage, Alex grabbed my wrist again, making me jump.
“Hey, let’s try to move closer now.” He said, pulling me forward. He stopped, stood on his toes, and looked around. “All right, right about here is where the action’s going to be.”
We were about five rows from the stage. Not that there were any actual “rows” – it was an unorganized shuffle of humanity, and there were small pockets of people forming everywhere. Still, we were fairly close to the front. While the preparations were going on, Alex tried to give me a quick history lesson about the band we were about to see. This band, it turned out, was the reason everyone wanted to come, and part of the reason why no one wanted to burn their energy during the opening performances.
More and more people tried to crowd in front of the stage. I could feel breath on the back of my neck. Alex was at my right side, and we were being pressed together, our shoulders touching. I didn’t have much time to think about that, though, since the band had just taken the stage.
They didn’t waste time with introductions. I guess that when you’re headlining a show, even a small one like this, you can pretty much assume that everyone who paid to get inside knows who you are. And for good reason – these guys were good.
Their first song started out fast. I tried to pay attention to the lyrics at first, noticing the way the rhythm in the words seemed to melt into the song, but soon enough, everyone around me was jumping up and down wildly and I couldn’t see the stage any more. Someone on my left rammed into me with their shoulder, driving me forcefully into Alex, who in turn bounced a bit to his right. He looked over at me, smiled, and shoved me back. I hit the guy on my left, who didn’t move an inch, since he was roughly three times as big as me, but then someone to his left shoved him into me and I went stumbling to the right again. Alex caught me, grabbed me by the shoulder, and spun me around until we had switched places. Now he was next to the big guy, and I was between him and a girl who was only a little taller than me.
I didn’t have much time to get used to my new position, though, as Alex came flying into me. I caught his shoulder and shoved him back. This time, he planted his feet and let his upper body fall. He bounced off of the big guy and started falling backwards, where he was caught and supported by the people standing behind him. They pushed him back up and toward me. Then, the tempo in the song picked up even more, and everyone started jumping, some pumping their fists in the air. I still hadn’t moved, save for the times I had been propelled by others.
Then, suddenly, the song slowed down and I felt an arm wrapping around my shoulders. The girl on my left had reached over and grabbed me, pulling me into a swaying motion. Then, Alex did the same. I looked around and saw that everyone in the room had grabbed the people next to them and were swaying, their knees loose, but using the others for support while at the same time supporting them. I slowly lifted my hands from my pockets, worked up as much courage as I could, and put one arm around the girl next to me. She didn’t even notice, since she was leaning so heavily on the guy next to her. Then came the other one. Alex. I was about to put my arm around Alex. Oh, god.
His arm was already across my back, burning a hole in my shoulder. He was pressed up against me, the way everyone was pressed up against each other, and the combined heat and motion in the room had him sweating just a bit. Just enough to give his skin a subtle shine in the stage lights. His hair was messed up, sticking out in wild directions, and his eyes were locked intently on the stage. I raised my hand, slowly creeping up to his shoulder, just a half-inch from touching his back. I was just about to make contact, when the song picked up again.
Immediately, as if through telepathy, everyone raised their arms and started jumping again, ramming into each other with their shoulders and forearms, propelling each other across the floor. The girl on my right sent me into Alex, who in turn sent me back into her. Every time I managed to get my footing, someone would send me sprawling again.
When the song ended, I planted my feet carefully. Alex looked over, grinning.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“Yeah, great, huh?” He said.
Before I could respond, another song started, and so did the spin cycle. By the end of this one, I was having a hard time staying vertical. Alex must have caught this, because he leaned up against me and steadied me.
“Stop fighting it.” He said. “Stop trying to stay on your feet. That’s what’s making you so dizzy. Just let them knock you over.”
“What, just fall?”
“You won’t fall, you’re packed in on all sides with people.” He was right. “They know what to do; they’ll catch you.”
“What if they don’t?”
“You caught me. You caught her.” He nodded to the girl on my right. “And this is your first time. Trust me, they’ll catch you.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t make sense, or that I didn’t trust him. It was Dixie’s crushed-testicle story. Even though it was illogical and unlikely and probably made up, once you’ve got the image of crushed testicles in your head, they don’t go away. They may hide for a while, behind something else, but sooner or later, those things are going to make another appearance.
“Are you worried about her?” Alex asked, nodding at the girl again. “You’re not going to hurt her. She’d probably kick your ass for even suggesting it.”
I started to say something, but the band started playing again. Reflexively, I tried to keep my footing, fighting against every jolt to my body. Alex was watching, and he reached for me. He slipped one arm around me, straightened me out, and then fell backwards, pulling me with him. My heart jumped into my throat, but I couldn’t tell if it was because he was touching me, or because I was falling backwards toward a concrete floor. Then, I felt hands pushing at my back, lifting us back up. When we were almost vertical again, they shoved a bit harder, sending us into the people standing in front of us. They, too, toppled forward and were supported by the people in front of them.
Now, with one eye on Alex, trying to follow his lead, I let the crowd push me. I wasn’t Brandon Collier, individual human, any more. I was part of the whole, floating. I was the space-dog, slipping into null-gravity. Alex wasn’t holding me any more, but my heart was still racing. I started to feel the rhythm of it, the way the jumping and pushing fell in with the beat of the song. I was able to anticipate where the next blow was going to come from, and roll with it, letting it push me and spin me around. A few songs later, I worked up the nerve to join in and give Alex a shove now and then. He noticed this, and shot me a grin. I smiled back. Not that I could help it.
When it was over, I was drained. Emotionally and physically. Alex looked that way, too. He had a dazed smile on his face as we stopped at the bar and got some bottled water on the way out. The van was parked on the other side of the lot, far from the doors and the lights. It was dark outside, and the cold breeze was refreshing after the time spent in the middle of that huge crowd. There was no snow on the ground there, so we sat down next to his van, leaning against the side in silence while we drank our water.
Alex finished his bottle and took a deep breath, blowing a cloud of vapor into the air. I was in the middle of a sip when he jabbed me in the ribs with his finger. I jumped and coughed, spraying a cloud of water into the air and choking on what had been in my throat. When I recovered, I gave him a look. He smirked back at me, so I punched him lightly on the shoulder. He raised his fist to retaliate, but I shook my water bottle, silently daring him to make a move when he was so far behind in this arms race. Defeated, he sank back and kicked out his legs, flopping over and leaning against me. Without thinking, acting on nothing but impulse, perhaps left over from earlier, I dropped my arm around him.
I didn’t realize I had done it until I felt his sweater against my palm. I tensed up and felt my eyes widen. He turned to me with a questioning look on his face, stared back at me for a few seconds, then smiled and dropped his head against my shoulder, closing his eyes. All the tension vanished from me, then, and I fell back into my previous position and took another sip from my water bottle. Halfway though, he jabbed me in the ribs again. This time it didn’t make me jump. I stuck my tongue out at him and took another drink, considering myself totally safe. I nearly drowned when he leaned up and kissed me on the cheek.