The moth thudded against the window at 11:45. Ringer jumped, even though she knew it was coming. “Never fails to surprise me,” she said.
I looked up at the plate glass. The moth glowed milky green, its thorax furred, its eyes fiery orange. The dimensions were preposterous, nearly primeval. One of the Fairview boys slapped his fist against the glass and goggled. “That wing-ed fucker is as big as my hand.”
I dug around in my bag for silver change to cover six-times-refilled coffee. The moth’s arrival was clear sign I should go home. It’s getting late. I have work tomorrow. Some of the rest of them did too, but they were all teenagers. They worked fast food and mall retail. They were making minimum wage and kept their nametags pinned to jeans pockets and backpack straps so they wouldn’t forget them. The oldest among them had just turned twenty-one, or maybe he was still just twenty, with already silver-tinged beard scruff of a much older man.
I was twenty-four. I had an office job and an ugly Ann Taylor blazer draped over the fake woodgrain and orange vinyl. I told myself that the blazer made me feel like a grown-up, but I was living with and working for my mother, as I had for the entirety of the last tedious year, allowing a bit of my tiny paycheck to be withheld each period to pay back squandered college tuition a bit at a time and spending the rest on records and the therapist that refused to see me unless I paid him myself. He was expensive but managed to convince my hypochondriac parents that my grand lingering depression was just that. Perhaps a little malaise, a soupcon of ennui, a touch of atrophied will, which sounded like a Shakespearean euphemism for impotence. It was not, he assured them, whatever remembered chapter from abnormal psych they’d recollected in between the awkward phone calls divorced people make when they’re trying to work out whether they’re daughter is a suicide risk or just being dramatic.
Both, if we’re being honest
I was still in work clothes because I hadn’t been home since 8:30 am because there’s only so much time an adult human being can spend at her mother’s house without feeling like an invalid. I stayed at the office late writing and abusing the office internet to download New Zealand indie bands off Napster, but still it was only nine when I left and there were only so many hours you could spend making long distance calls and smoking cigarettes in your mother’s garage before being overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. The diner, though, glowed greasy yellow at Mom’s exit off the highway, its parking lot full of shitty, stickered teenager cars, and the interior smogged with griddle steam and cigarette smoke. 24/7. Even during hurricanes.
It felt appropriate to hang out with teenagers, because I felt like a teenager. I may have resembled an adult in costume and aspect, but my mother still sat up waiting for me to come home. I could not be grounded or punished, per se, but her late night would equal morning crankiness which could mean reprisals for my workplace shortcomings, for my abdication of adult responsibility, for the hard-to-discuss way I eschewed networking and professional events in favor of hanging out with eighteen-year olds. How old are those kids at the Waffle House? Young. They were young. Young enough to mistake me for cool. Young enough to not catch the whiff of chronic fuck-up wafting off me like cheap cologne. Young enough to never look disappointed when it was only me that showed up like a Ghost of Bungled Adulthood Yet to Come.
Art Night watched my scrounging and gave me a solid, got you covered, which made me feel awful because she a was younger than I was. I collected my things and slipped out through the throng of bellowing boys in baggy shorts and seventeen-year-old girls, all vocal fry and sparkly butterfly clips, away to home, and my mother in her bathrobe, waiting in the leather chair, you know I can’t go to sleep until you’re home safely.
She started turning out the lights as soon as I walked in the back door.
“Don’t forget we have a meeting in the morning,” she said.
We had a meeting in the morning. New client. I took notes between doodles of ballgowns in a University-branded notebook I bought for the Latin American Literature class I never bothered to drop the spring previous. I half-listened in the meeting, writing down meaningless fragments, in light of recent market trends, punchy corporate mission statement innovative means of communicating, our quarterly reports suggest, outside the box, seize a more tech-centered campaign like I was doing free verse on jargon night. Every now and then I raised my head and nodded, or cleaned my glasses thoughtfully and said something like, “how interesting” or “that sounds like an exciting challenge” which seemed like the sort of thing a professional adult would do. In spite of all this, we still managed to get the account.
Afterwards I went to lunch with Geranium, an older woman who worked down the hall. We ate salads in name only and drank vats of iced tea at a restaurant that tried very hard to look like it wasn’t a buffet steakhouse six months ago. It almost succeeded. Geraniums and were co-authoring a bodice ripper about cowboys and cheerleaders in our spare time. It wasn’t going well. My attempts at genre always ended up being weird, digressive and kind of depressing. The last chapter I’d turned in was a bit of stream-of-consciousness about death and social class and the Alamo as symbol of the corrupt American mythos. Alison, darlin’, I thought you were supposed to be writing a sex scene?
Still, the hypothetical book provided the pretext for us to hang out, which often translated riding around her in her Suburban getting stoned and listening to her endless collection of 1970s era bubblegum pop. She never stopped trying to convert me– a committed blasphemer and solid rosé on the pinko scale–to John Birch conservatism and/or the evangelical church. I tolerated it, because I was in it for the wandering details of her biography, which began with some folkloric meeting of an itinerant Irish musician and a diner waitress in eastern Kentucky and comprised two continents and a cast of characters allegedly including Elvis Presley, Bobby Sands, Bob Geldof, Billy Graham and Bob Guccione Sr. I’d sit rapt, head against her passenger window, as she spun her tales. I couldn’t offer much in exchange. I believed my life story to be depressing or, worse, boring, and my opinions would only start fights. So I’d just tell her about my dreams.
I was at a party on a warm spring night and it smelled like grass and rain. There were bonfires and giant moths and people dancing and a bearded man with the kindest face asked me to walk with him down to the stream. We waded out into the cool water and he reached down and picked up the muddy, mossy stones in the current. “You think these are nothing special,” he said, as he washed them off, “but each one is a whole world.” And each stone glowed like a planet. It was beautiful I woke up crying.
Geranium believed the young man in the dream might be Satan, and the dream was a clear sign he was trying to get my soul and possibly into my pants. “I went to a party very much like that at my grandmother’s farm in County Sligo. She was a powerful sorceress who practiced black magic, and on that night, Satan tried to seduce me. I remember Van Morrison was singing. But I am telling you: I ran as fast as I could back to Jesus.”
I had so many questions I wanted to ask. Ooh, a real witch? Like, corporeal Satan? Was he wearing leather pants? Like, corporeal Van Morrison? God, I hope he wasn’t wearing leather pants. Was it like a psychedelic Yeats poem? Because that’s what I’m picturing. Is any of this real? Why do I never get invited to cool parties?
“You should come to my birthday party,” said Ringer, when I looked up from my journal. I’d been trying to record Geranium’s most recent story about the challenges of trying to socialize as a teenaged lapsed Catholic-turned-evangelical-Christian after Satanic seduction in Troubles-benighted Belfast.
I probably blinked and noticed the moth was back on the glass, this time, beside Art Night’s head. I could see Apollo, Ringer’s brother, in the booth beyond, holding court with a group of younger boys, and his girlfriend, Cranberries. He’d been the reason I’d ended up coming to The Diner at all. We were friends, close friends even, by one of those needs-charts-to-explain social lineages. But we’d started to drift apart over the summer for reasons too stupid and boring to explain and I felt like I’d hardly spoken to him in months, which is how I ended up hanging out with his sister.
Ringer invited me again and clarified that she was not just doing it because I was legally allowed to buy alcohol. Other people will bring beer, she said. They have fake IDs. I hadn’t thought of that. I asked if her parents would be there. They would, but you remember from New Years’. I did. It had felt like Neverland. I’d ended up ringing in the millennium with Art Night and Ringer and flat champagne and then crashing in a former servant’s quarters, then housing a futon mattress, a tattered poster of Jim Morrison’s grave, and a depressed, gray iguana. It was freezing cold in that room. I slept in my coat, my back to ominous tiny doors into the eaves, from which I swore I heard whispers all night. The next morning I crept down the back stairs early, after being shocked to overhear that the parents had been in the house all along.
I didn’t know if it was appropriate for a twenty-four-year-old woman to attend an eighteen-year old’s birthday party . There might be legal implications. On the other hand, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been invited to an actual party, not a thing my parents threw, or one of those events where you stand around in an ill-fitting, pastel Gap twinset and pretend to care bout a man a polo shirt prattling on about an article in Fast Company.
“Tell me you’ll come to the party,” says Ringer.
“Sure,” I said,”
Apollo and Ringer lived in a kind of a petite chateau of Gatsby-vintage, fitted with high gables, a round tower, and capacious grounds, featuring both an overgrown, high-hedged rose garden and a swampy folly of a waterwheel. Their parents had bought it for a song back when my hometown was less fashionable. The house had been a bit of a fixer-upper. They’d mostly never gotten around to the fixing , which gave the place a comfortably Gothic, what-if-Wes-Anderson-directed-a-Shirley-Jackson-adaptation feel.
My sister agreed to come along to the party. She was nineteen, home from college, and herself a regular at the diner. Our mother and stepfather were both out of town, so we were on our own. We could stay out all night and no one would wait up to. I’m not spending the night over there, she told me on the way over. You’re going to have to figure out some way to drive us home. I didn’t mind her saying it. Having a harge made me feel responsible, more like a chaperone than a vampire.
We arrived at the Chateau at about seven. I deposited beer in the refrigerator, filled a cup with ice and mixed a gin and tonic from the contents of my bag, because I may have been at a teenage party, but I was not a savage and went outside to watch throngs of teenagers wandering up the long driveway through the forest and into the shadows of the house.
Apollo set up to play music on a half-moon terrace with his new band—at that point, a second guitarist and bassist, both Diner denizens, selected for their knowledge of sun-struck California pop-punk. They hadn’t yet found a drummer. Apollo plugged in and feedback screamed through the evening. He thanked us all for coming, adopted a shredding stance and silenced the crickets and treefrogs with his first riff.
They weren’t terrible, even in abbreviated debut. Apollo was a talented musician. His new band kept up admirably. The audience bobbed their heads roughly in time with the absent backbeat, as if it were totally normal to hear a drum-less distorted wail of guitars at Happy Hour, al fresco, in Asheville’s fanciest neighborhood. The song concluded. Apollo checked the setlist and chugged right into track two.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the cops showing up. Apollo’s neighborhood was a famous for opulent architectural anachronism, elaborate driveways, and a rigid social pecking order of boring rich white people rigorously maintained by keeping out pretty much everyone, including other boring rich white people that were not boring, rich or white enough or in the right way. They also maintained their own local government and police force, the latter famous for pulling over any car that looked inexpensive upon the moment it crossed the town line. I figured the dented pick-up trucks and punk rock stickered pieces of shit lining the verdant street at the bottom of Apollo’s driveway would have been enough to summon SWAT teams, and then came the power chords.
The cops flashed the lights once in the driveway. I worried they’d arrest me for simply being there Exactly what does a person have to do to contribute to the delinquency of a minor? Bum them a cigarette? Buy a bottle of champagne? Buy two bottles of champagne? Tell them there is no God? I sort of shirked off to the side, so I was half-hidden behind two or three different boys named Brian.
Apollo, no longer roaring, stood mute at the mic as Ringer tried to explain. “It’s my birthday,” she said. “They were just playing me a song.”
“It was a very loud song,” said one of the cops. “You can’t really do that outside at night in, like, a neighborhood.”
I could see Apollo at the mic, chewing on the word night. It was 7:30 in June, which meant it looked, for all intents and purposes, like about 4 in the afternoon. I focused all my thoughts and hoped I might telepathically communicate don’t argue without having to leave my hiding place.
The other cop, nosier than his compatriot, took a long look at the teenagers in the driveway and surmised that we were obviously having a party. “Y’all underage? You got drugs? Alcohol?”
He asked it in such a casual way, I wondered if he just wanted a drink. Most of the crowd had frantically hidden their beer under ferns and behind decorative features in the tangle of garden, so that barely more than a cursory glance would reveal a veritable orchard of Pabst cans and cider bottles, sprouting through the ivy.
One of the cops looked in my direction and of the Brians shifted to reveal me, in party dress, still holding my cocktail.
“She’s not underage,” said someone, from the crowd.
The cops regarded me with a long stare, as if trying to work out whether I was a parent or a family member or a staff member, a boozy old governess, perhaps. But before whatever questioning began, Apollo’s parents pulled into the driveway behind the cop car. The father what seems to be the problem, officer-ed the situation into some quiet sideline negotiation, while the mother told us they’d come as soon as they heard the band start playing.
“We could hear you boys all the way from the dining room of the country club,” she said. “A bit loud, but very energetic.”
I watched the cops back the car out of the driveway, following a handshake with Apollo’s dad. He gestured for his wife, as he strode toward the front door.
She smiled beatifically. I’d returned to my previous hiding place, but Apollo’s mom already had me in her sights. “Oh and Alison,” she said. “Lovely to see you. Please tell your mother I said hello.”
She went in the house, where she’d stay the rest of the night.
Then, strangely enough, the party started.
At 2am, I stood in the powder room of the chateau, trying to work out which of the dozen or so tarnished silver butter knives left on the sink counter would most effectively open the knob-less, linenfold door. I thought about Geranium’s Irish party, maybe because I could hear a bad punk rock cover of Van Morrison coming in through the window. None of the kids had yet revealed themselves to be agents of Satan or show me magical stones that turned into planets, but I thought I might explore the rose garden in a bit, and maybe there I’d find something, a flower, a mythological creature, blooming beneath the sea of brambles.
Outside the bathroom, the foyer was empty save a couple of frogs, one small and green, one large and pimply brown, who’d hopped in through the open front door. They ribbited. I gave them a salute.
I found Apollo by looking for his blonde hair, shining silver in the moonlight. He sat by the garden hedge, a pale prince at the head of a chattering circle of spiky hair and camel lights. “There are frogs in your house,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know. They’re there all the time.”
I shrugged and sat down beside Cranberries, who’d told me several times throughout the night that she didn’t think I was cool. It stung a bit given that she was, like, an actual child. I tried to work up a froth about it, but that was impossible given that it was manifestly true. She sighed like oh, great, her again when I sat beside her. Of all the kids at the party, including her boyfriend, she seemed to be the only one to register what an abject shambling disaster I was, that this is what failure looks like, no matter how many ironic t-shirts you put on to try and gussy it up. She turned her eyes on me, glasses reflecting the pink party light temporarily installed over the front door, and gave me a withering look, like, why are you still here, weird old lady?
Excellent fucking question. I took a sip of flat Pabst, found that someone had ashed in it and spat it out into the grass. Cranberries laughed. I seethed, indignant. I remember thinking, God, what a callow little bitch. I can’t wait for her to go to college, so I never have to see her again, which was both hilarious in retrospect and probably the most thought I’d ever given to the woman who’d, end up being my very best friend.
She exited stage left with Apollo leaving me to watch as one after another guest fell, often in place, across the lawn, throughout the gardens. Depending on how you looked at them, they appeared peaceful as sleeping shepherds, Endymions in the moonlight, or casualties of some attempted siege of a stately home .
Just before dawn, Art Night and I made several rounds with trash bags and recycle bins between the bodies. We sat in two chairs, brightly colored and child-scaled, at the top of the lawn, as the glittery night faded into morning.
“Do you think we should do something about them?” I asked, gesturing to the bodies. “They’re probably getting eaten alive by mosquitos.”
Art Night shrugged. “I’m pretty sure we can’t move them.”
I was pretty sure she was right.
My sister appeared below in the rosy light. She walked up the hill and asked if I would take her home.
We walked down the driveway to my car. “You see the moth?” my sister asked. “It was a big one, just like the one from The Diner. It lit on your car earlier. Under the streetlight. “
“The moth follows that crowd everywhere,” I said.
But I thought, for a moment, maybe the moth just following me, reminding me how late it was getting and that it was long past time to move on.