Karen and Maddie were getting high in the basement while Theo and Luke discussed nuclear physics upstairs. Luke, who never drank and never smoked, listened intently while Theo, who often drank and always smoked, did most of the talking. Cannabinoids seemed to have a reverse effect on Theo: they struck him from his stupor, loosening his limbs to cartoon-like levels of animation. Out of enthusiasm, he punched blindly through the air and had to lean against a wall for support. Now he was making a legitimate, if not quite profound, point about thorium.
“I see what you’re saying,” Luke said, “But start-up costs are just too high. No government is willing to fund that kind of thing. Except maybe China.”
“Yeah! The philosopher-kings! Nah, what I’m telling you is the infrastructure is already there. Thorium is cheaper in the long run.”
A door swung open and Zack appeared, grinning and poorly shaved. In one hand, he gripped a small black suitcase that Luke imagined would one day be labelled, ‘Exhibit B.’
“Theo’s right,” Zack said. “Thorium’s the shit.” It was widely agreed that Zack, who had a full-ride scholarship through the physics department, was the most intelligent person on campus. He also, according to general consensus, had tried the greatest variety of drugs. He walked to the door at the end of the hall and cried like a banshee before the door slammed shut.
Another door swung open and a glassy-eyed Karen and Maddie re-emerged. Although Theo had trouble distinguishing the smell of pot on them from the amount in the environment generally, Luke detected a notable increase in concentration. Karen closed her eyes and performed a blissful fouetté en tournant.
“Let’s go to the party,” Maddie said. So they left. The four linked arms and formed a convoy down the icy street. Luke, then Karen, then Theo, then Maddie. Luke mulled over the potential impact of tokamak fusion on future subsidies as Karen and Theo swung their arms in a comfortable rhythm. Maddie amused herself by winking at Luke and whoever walked by. Luke, whose hypothalamus retained its full functionality, was the only one shivering when they arrived.
Inside, it was crowded. After saying hello to everyone there, Luke decided to leave despite the music, a simple bass riff that annoyed him less than normal. He even caught himself humming a fragment of it on the way back. ‘That’s funny,’ he thought. ‘I’m becoming more plebian every day.’ He then switched to whistling L’autunno, his favorite of Vivaldi’s stagioni.
Theo stayed and guzzled a bottle of wine. Karen and Maddie stayed and sat hugging on the edge of a sofa. The handsomer Jason—there were two on campus—took the opportunity to flirt with both of them. As an economics major, Jason understood the incentive structure for future investment. His cost-benefit analysis must have shifted somewhat when his girlfriend arrived and he drifted away. Karen and Maddie giggled and joked for a while, but grew bored as their high started to dwindle. Karen started staring at Theo as Maddie picked at the arm of the decaying sofa.
“I’m bored,” Maddie announced. Karen, choosing not to listen, got up and joined Theo in emptying the Merlot. Maddie couldn’t hear, but guessed they were talking about something obnoxious. She was pondering leaving when the English majors joined her on the couch.
“How goes it in Maddie-land?” Phillip asked. He was a bulky guy—a former football player, in fact—and carried himself with an unshakable serenity. He attributed this calm to a correct reading of The Brothers Karamazov. Maddie always looked at Phillip directly, hoping to find some touch of insincerity, some giveaway phoniness in a twitch or an inflection. As usual, she was disappointed.
“It goes, I guess. It goes.”
“Have you tired of this garden of Epicurean delights?” This was Don who had to bend over to talk around Phillip. Maddie disliked him for claiming to understand less than he actually knew.
“You could say that.”
“I think it just keeps getting more and more interesting,” Don said. At that moment, the hosts returned with pizza and box wine. The hosts, George and Peter, were roommates and lovers and seniors. They treated their fellow students with an almost paternalistic affection. Food on the table, everyone dug in.
To Karen’s chagrin, Alyssa took the last slice before she could have a second. Karen had felt indifferently towards Alyssa since a premature game of “Never Have I Ever” had turned into something that crossed a few lines. Once the pizza was gone, Karen and Theo left for more munchies.
Phillip and Don became engrossed in a conversation about how to live the good life, plucking evidence from Plato, Hegel, and Breaking Bad. It was clear that their version of the good life would take a lot of background reading. Maddie, having removed all of the Italian sausage, finished her slice and wiped the grease off on her jeans. She said goodbye to George and Peter as she got up to leave.
“Have a good night!” they chimed together. Maddie’s phone buzzed. “COME DRINK WRT UP!” followed by “COME DRINK WITH US!” Maddie left.
Meanwhile, Theo found a urinal in the bathroom at the student center and took what may have been the happiest piss of his life. Or certainly, at least, the happiest piss in recent memory. While briefly separated from Karen, Sydney had declared her love for him in no uncertain terms. Theo hoped this confession was due to a genuine feeling and not merely a drunken fancy. But as micro-droplets of his dilute pee ricocheted off the urinal and back onto his pants, he felt a contentment that was almost complete.
“Guess who is getting laid tonight!” he shouted at his reflection. Someone coughed in the stall. Theo shrugged and went straight to Sydney’s room as instructed, trying to recall if she had any roommates.
The person coughing in the stall was, by coincidence, the recipient of Zack’s black suitcase and about to verify the potency of its contents.
Karen, alone in the student center eating barbecue potato chips, tried texting Theo. When her phone vibrated a moment afterwards, she nearly fell out of her seat. But it was just Caroline telling her to come to the dance. After twenty minutes and no response from Theo, she complied.
Sydney, as it so happened, did have a roommate. Theo and Sydney sat cross-legged on the bed. Theo checked his phone and saw Karen’s text, “hey where are you?” and felt a tiny pang of something. As if by instinct, he held down the little red button to turn it off. After missing several obvious hints, Sydney’s roommate stopped folding laundry to have a sudden realization.
“Oh, wait a sec, are you guys going to have sex in here?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Sydney.
“Ha! Ah, okay, let me just get my things. Will you be done by like two-ish?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” said Sydney.
“Have a good night!” the roommate shouted. Sydney pulled off her shirt as the door was closing.
The dance itself was chaos. Luke, having attended one once, had gathered sufficient anthropological data to form a theory of humanity’s regression. Karen realized she was not drunk enough and took a long drink from a flask of vodka. Her perception of everything was so rattled, it tasted sweet. She took a second drink before handing it back to Caroline’s ex, Miles.
“Rough night?” asked Miles.
“Hey, have you seen Caroline anywhere?” He nodded towards the corner where Karen spotted Caroline twerking with a random sophomore. They were separated for a split-second as Zack and unattractive Jason barged into the fray. The sophomore grabbed on to Caroline’s hips more tightly. Karen turned towards Miles.
“You can’t keep watching her like that you know,” Karen said. “You’ll go crazy.”
“I can’t not,” Miles said.
“I’m sorry, man.” And Karen sort of hugged him, but was bumped out of the way by another twerking couple. Miles didn’t hear her anyhow. The music was too loud.
Outside, Maddie passed around some communal cigarettes even though switching to tobacco was giving her a bit of a headache. Her almost-friend, Brian, stomped one out on the ground before it had reached the filter.
“Don’t waste them,” Maddie said. Jason waved hello as he walked past. Then her actual friend, Linda, started talking.
“Sometimes, shit, it’s like I think this is us. This is what we’re all becoming. You know what I mean? It’s just like that I don’t care about what everyone else does. Like, shit, yes, there’s a dance, there’s twerking. But there’s something so trivial about all that. You know?”
Maddie took a long drag on her cigarette. Having agreed with Linda about this in the past, she was disinclined to do so a second time. Handsome Jason reappeared.
“You know those things are bad for you, right?” Maddie blew smoke in his direction.
“What’s it to ya?” she asked. Jason shrugged.
“Just saying. Down the road you might regret it.”
“In my experience, people regret what they don’t do,” Maddie said. “Not so much what they do.”
“That depends on the kind of life you lead,” Linda suggested. “Doesn’t it?” Maddie got tired of smoking and dropped her half-finished cigarette down on the ice, pressing it in with her heel.
Karen was starting to feel like shit and wandered back to her room alone. The house she lived in was quiet and empty. The party was over. All that remained were half-filled cans of PBR and sticky floors. She sidestepped the beer pong table in the hallway to get to her room. There she crawled into bed without bothering about her clothes. The heater wasn’t working well so she snuggled in under the sheets. She yawned and wanted to go to sleep, but something intangible was in the way. An invisible wall. Fumbling with her phone, she sent a text message.
A few minutes later, Luke carefully navigated his way over the puddles of beer in the lounge. He sidled by the table and entered Karen’s room.
“I was about to go to bed when I got your text. It’s an interesting request.”
Karen looked at him and nodded.
“Do you have something particular in mind? Or just anything?”
“Anything you want,” she said in a sleepy voice, nuzzling her head into her pillow. He sat down on the floor next to her.
“Just a moment, I have to think of something.” She folded her hands across her stomach and stared up at the ceiling and waited like that for a minute.
“Alright,” Luke began. “Here it goes.”
“Once upon a time there lived a man who knew everything. He understood how everything worked and always knew exactly what would happen. This caused him a great deal of boredom, so that one day, he tried to forget what he already knew. The first time he tried forgetting, it was really painful and he couldn’t do it. The second time he tried forgetting, it was really sad and he couldn’t do it. But on his third try, he knew he would be able to if that’s what he really wanted.”
“Is this an okay story so far?” Luke asked.
“It’s great,” she said. “Keep going.”
“The next morning, he woke up, and a woman came up to him and asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ And his forgetting trick must have worked because he had no clue who she was at all. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember and he told her so. This upset her and she left him in tears.”
“Did she leave him anything to remember her by?” Karen asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, yes. She left him a tiny golden key. But she didn’t tell him what it went to so for a while he tried using the key on all the locks he could think of. None of them worked and for a while he was very frustrated. After a long time of searching, he realized that there was something carved in the key. A tiny, tiny word. Do you remember what it was?”
“Attic,” Karen giggled.
“Yes, that’s exactly right. So he went up to his attic. And he remembered the attic, but there was a box there he had never seen before. A chest in fact. Like a treasure chest. And he put the key and the lid popped open. And inside, can you tell me what was there? I’m afraid I don’t recall.”
“Amethyst!” Karen laughed.
“Yes, you’re right! Now I remember. It turns out, the chest only looked like a chest from the outside. It works like Narnia. On the inside was a glittering purple cave, covered in amethyst crystals. And down at the bottom was a deep, dark hole and he wondered whether to climb down.”
“He does. He’s got to,” Karen said.
“Well, you’re right, he does. But before he does, he has a moment where he’s not sure. He doesn’t know if it’s dangerous to go down and he doesn’t know whether the woman he saw was friendly or not. But after a while, he decides to get a flashlight and a baseball bat and to go into cave because the amethyst is really pretty.”
“Oh, okay. Then what happens?” Karen asked, yawning. Her eyes were starting to droop closed.
“Well, it’s really dark at the bottom, so he turns on his flashlight. Even with a light, it takes some time for him to feel his way around, but eventually he finds a door. He tries smashing the door open with his baseball bat, but that doesn’t work. So he remembers his key and tries it and the door unlocks. Inside is an enormous library and in the corner, a book sitting alone on a table. He goes over to it and it has all of his memories written down, see? So he begins reading and everything starts to come back to him. He remembers who the woman is. And she comes over and sits next to him. And the only thing he can’t remember is why he was ever bored in the first place.”
By then Karen had fallen into a deep sleep. When Luke finished speaking, he spent a moment listening to her heavy snores. There was something calm and steady in them, like waiting for the tides to change. The room was still and dim. Contemplating all the worlds he was not a part of, it was with the delicatest of motions Luke rose to his feet. And, leaving, he closed the door behind him as though the slightest noise would wake her.