The sound of his roommate’s alarm stirred Cameron from sleep. He brought simple facts to mind, to see how they looked in this odd half light of consciousness: Something very sad had happened which he wanted very much to forget. He was seventeen years old and attended the Hill Top Academy in Cranberry Farms, Connecticut. The Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon in 479 BC. There were 67 days until spring vacation and his roommate was a dick. He waited but the alarm pulsed on and he heard nothing stir on the bunk beneath him. He threw himself off the top bed and landed so flatly on the hard ground that the arches of his feet hurt. He waited a bit but the alarm pulsed on like an upended remote-control car spinning its wheels in the air. Fumbling with the vast array of buttons and switches on top of the clock, he gave up and yanked the cord from the wall. His roommate slept on.
At 5 a.m. the dorm room looked much as it did at 2 a.m. Two desks. Two chairs. Two dressers. His roommate’s huge lacrosse banner spanning the expanse of the one available wall. He had told Cameron repeatedly that he was waking up early to study and went to bed when the prefects came around at 11 convinced of this fact. Greek declensions, the fruits of his lucubrations, lay quietly in Cameron’s mind, ready to be summoned to careful order, as he let their formless alien sound slide across his lips. His mother’s letter filled with news about going back to work lay lifelessly on the top corner of his desk and the blank sheet on which he had tried to write his reply rested next to it. Maybe Greek had the words to say that he wanted to say, he thought.
The last night came back to him as small as the circle of light his desk lamp emitted and reeking of the antiseptic chemical-mint stench of the dip-spit with which he had filled an entire one liter soda bottle. It was a solid three hours until class and sleep was already irretrievable. He went over to the room’s lone window and gazed down onto the town which mobbed up against the stone ramparts of the Hill Top Academy’s citadel. The school would be ready when the army of philistines attacked, defending the high ground and rolling down the dollies from the library circulation desk to thwart their attack. The widower of a one night stand with the fickle mistress of industry, the town was comprised of derelict steel foundries and businesses so specialized they had to be a front for something.
One Saturday he had walked out of the school’s walls and across the cemetery filled with headstones barely visible over the uncut grass to the deserted factory he had agreed to explore with Marie. They jumped the fence and tore the plywood off what used to be the factory’s window. On the wide expanse of the concrete floor a few pipes opened up their gaping mouths and a web of cords dangled down from the ceiling vaulted with huge steel beams nearly 50 feet above, recalling the blast furnaces they must have fueled, now connected to nothing. He thought of all the time in which there had been no one there. Here it was. The unmarked time seemed to occupy the cathedral-like expanse of the factory.
Marie took off her coat, spreading it over the ground, and remarked that it reminded her of her attic or her garage. Cameron pivoted slowly in one place. Finally, he had reached it. Happily raising both hands out, palms turned up like a priest or a circus master, he announced matter of factly that this was, in fact, the Capital of Sadness.
He woke up with a start at the ten minute bell and threw on a blazer and tie he knew to match impeccably, opting against the time consuming option of a belt and socks. His roommate slept on. He walked through his hall full of the sounds of waking and coated with the thick pallor of sleep. The scent of innumerable masculine hygiene products commingled into one overpowering musk wafting from the bathroom where the dull sound of falling shower-water skittered.
He walked out on the quad and the cold instantly enveloped him in a brittle chrysalis of sharp discomfort. He sneezed so hard his dry upper lip split like a fine paper cut. The campus was made up of structures of Gothic stone built out of sheer English envy, connected by paths of red brick flanked by bare trees. A thin film of solitude was thrown over the whole place, like the silence over the little lake at the edge of campus. He loved this place with a sweetness beyond words. The path he walked to class was girded by mountains of snow which the “physical plant” had pushed to the side with one of the omnipresent golf carts attached to a massive plow.
His first class was Advanced Humanities, or the Yale waiting room as the rest of the campus called it. The room, with its Ivy League woodwork, levitating candelabras, high backed red leather chairs and portraits of Thomas More, the heretic burner, and Thomas Jefferson, the slave holder, seemed to be a dungeon of knowledge. The teacher was out but left instructions that they edit each other’s papers in class. He was assigned Liz Smith. Liz was an Egyptian girl from New York who had been lobbying since freshman year, pressing hands on orientation day, to be the school’s first female Student Government President since it went co-ed, after boarding schools ceased to be fashionable and started needing tuition checks. Liz had an indefinite number of protean voices that she plucked from her toolkit to fit the situation: a cloying voice of entreaty to address her constituents forcefully grouped in the Memorial Room to hear her speak (“Reflect if you will, upon the names carved upon the very panels of this room, of the young people just like you who gave their lives for their country … ”), a soft probing tone to discuss literature (“From my perspective … ”) and a sharp hiss to execute the reverses of wit and irony upon which prep school repartee is based (“Or so he says … ”).
He read her paper. She always used adjectives in tautological pairs, gleaned cleanly from the useful and efficacious thesaurus she kept hidden in her desk. Every paper she wrote was a declaration of the absolute relativism of human life, followed by an imposition of herself onto the subject matter (she had turned Emily Dickinson into a diatribe against drinking), brought to a crescendo by an exhortation to the glorious and indefinite “man.” Cameron wrote “go fuck yourself,” deliberately illegibly in the margin.
“I wouldn’t joke about it. Gilbert here says sand-in-the-clam is a very serious medical condition.” Cameron, realizing Nick had floated out a joke in order to summon him to a battle of cool, wondered what it was that made people call each other by their last names. He felt the eyes of the twelve achievers around the oak table fix on him in expectation, but he kept his head in Liz’s paper and pretended to busily continue correcting split infinitives and consciously build up the effect he planned. Nick Eldridge was the only other varsity hockey player in Advanced Humanities so their assumed superiority over the other mere intellectuals tied them together. Nick, in sweatpants and a blazer, was currently fighting to flaunt the dress code. As the avatar of its spirit, the school always featured him in its promotional materials, which featured pictures of the campus even more picturesque than it actually was. One photo showed Nick half-dressed in his hockey locker, one skate untied and poring over Robert Frost, intently running his free hand through the thick swath of his hockey flow. The hockey team’s captain and leading scorer, on the ice his insatiable furnace seemed to be fueled by hard carbon lumps of arrogance. Nick was a joy to watch and, as the backup goalie, Cameron did a lot of watching.
When he first got to the school, Cameron had worked hard to become Nick’s friend and he even earned a long weekend at the Eldridge family house in Maine. Four days filled with silences and doors shut softly, looking onto gray fingers of rock reaching into the darker gray of the water. The family radiated an implacability that was wealth itself. He learned how to mimic it, but snapped pictures with his disposable camera when no one was looking. He answered the questions about school Nick’s father posed to his son so frequently that Cameron began to jokingly call himself “Nick’s Representative” in a desperate attempt to include everyone in a joke. It seemed that some mutual lie or truth had been assumed or revealed between them, and they didn’t talk much after that, except in the locker room where fraternity breathed the fetid stench of hockey equipment.
Nick had gotten no reaction from Cameron, so a few moments later, slouching in the right angle of his red leather chair, he launched into an extended narrative about getting caught dipping and having to drink his own spit to prove his innocence on the bus ride back from the hockey team’s game against Andover (Final Score: Nick Eldridge: 2, Andover: 1).
“Go fuck yourself Eldridge.” Cameron, calmly lifting his countenance out of Liz’s paper, cut in a perfectly sarcastic pitch. Nick’s eyes lit up with the pride of fraternity. The rest of the day was full of dailiness.