After my hometown high school burned to the ground, my parents sent me off to boarding school in the Blue Ridge mountains. It was kind of like that movie Dead Poets Society except instead of reading poems the students traded amphetamines for painkillers and dug underground tunnels into downtown Asheville to smuggle strippers onto campus. Once a kid stole a pony from a nearby farm as a prank and tied it to the goalpost on the football field. It wrapped the rope around its neck and almost choked itself to death. It was that kind of place.
Each night before lights out I would walk down behind the dorm to the dried creek bed and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes with my friend Ken Yoo. He was an exchange student. His hair was dyed Marshall Mathers blond and he weighed three hundred pounds. He was always homesick and cried himself to sleep each night. You could hear him down the hall weeping for Korea. One weekend we split a bottle of antidepressants he’d stolen from the headmaster’s medicine cabinet. I overdosed and woke up in a country hospital with no memory of how I got there. A whole day and night had passed without me knowing it. I’d dreamed I was in the Civil War and all my teeth died in Gettysburg and my mother was a horse thief and my heart was Sherman’s march to the sea.
A weird, tall nurse was there when I opened my eyes. She had feathers for earrings.
I ran my tongue over my teeth.
If I die, I said. Will you tell them to write lies about me—and I want cremation.
The nurse laughed.
Print the legend, I said. And scatter the ashes.
She reached down and touched my hand.
Don’t you worry, darling, she said. You’re gonna be a-ok.
But I wasn’t a-ok. I wasn’t even close. For years after that the darkness that began there followed me everywhere I went. Ken was the only one who came to visit me in the hospital. He’d snuck in a fifth of something special and we toasted D.H. Lawrence like Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider.
After graduation we lost touch.
Two decades later I got an email from a classmate. It said Ken had become a doctor in Korea then moved back to America, to South Carolina, and lost all his weight and married a state senator’s daughter and they had twins. He had many long, good years of healing the sick. But just last month he’d gotten drunk at a country club function and plowed his car into a minivan and killed three strangers. A week later he walked into the ocean and drowned himself from grief. The letter asked if I would come and speak at an event they were throwing in Ken’s honor.
After reading the message I went outside on the screened-in porch. Back in those days I was living in Mississippi, where the moon rises like a Greek god’s chariot over the fields. A burning comet came streaking across the velvet sky and I tried to catch it on my tongue like a snowflake. I wanted to think of something profound to say at Ken’s memorial but nothing much came to mind and instead of words immediately I had the memory of the time, many years prior, when I’d kissed a real-life princess in a blizzard on 14th street in New York City. Her great great grandfather was a king of a long lost South American empire. I’d studied his assassination in school. She had the same brown eyes as paintings of her great great grandmother, the queen. I’d walked her uptown from a Hawaiian restaurant and stood outside her apartment and she turned her head ever so slightly and I kissed her cold lips. From behind us came the sound of fire engines roaring down the street like wild red dragons. We realized that a block away there was a building on fire and we walked toward it, maybe we were drawn to the heat, through the blinding snow. I leaned in to get a better look and the warmth felt good on my face. I reached out my hand to the princess and she took it and pulled me close and kissed me again, pretty drunk. The firelight filling her royal eyes. Then she pushed me away and fell down in the street and began to cry.
I’m a real goddamn person, she said. Full of things, good and bad, just like you.
The flames leapt out the windows and were immediately extinguished by the snow, the fire was growing as it diminished.
Her name was Octavia and she wore an ancient red ruby ring.
I picked her up in my arms and carried her toward her apartment but didn’t get far. I couldn’t see anything in the raging blizzard. I could no longer tell the difference between ash and snow, fire and ice, life and afterlife. Everything was white on white, no sound except the crunch of my own footsteps trying to move forward. Soon I could no longer tell I was in a city at all. There were no directions anymore, time seemed to stop, to run backward and forward, moving as it stood idiotically still.
Some say the universe was created with a bang and will end with a whimper. That everything that ever was will be forgotten and everything we love and fear will someday cease to exist. Who am I to disagree? But maybe every true thing can last forever. All we have to do is beg for more.