Monday, February 27, 2012

Let's Climb to the Sky

By
Kathleen Bradean

She talked me into it. The girl down the hall with the bright purple shock of hair. Teresa Marie. We needed another science credit for our majors and for some reason were determined to take the class together. I was sitting on the floor in her dorm room, my head resting back on her mattress. She was on her bed, on her stomach, slipper-shod feet waving in the air, a pen in her mouth as we looked through the course offerings for the next semester. James Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, smirked down at us from a poster above her bed.

~

Jim Morrison brought us together. Her dorm room door was open as I shuffled past on my way from the shower. She was standing on her bed. Her fishnet stockings had rips in them. So did her black t-shirt. I wasn't sure if that was by design. She had a purple lock of hair, after all. She was taping a poster of James Morrison to the wall beside a picture of Nancy and Sid Vicious. His gorgeous face and black, curly hair - my catnip - brought me to a lustful, dazed halt.

"Who is that?" I asked breathlessly.

"You don’t know the Lizard King?" She squeaked with outrage.

I shook my head. "I know the Golden God, but I'm much more of a Jimmy Page kind of gal." Black curly hair. I'm telling you...

Incredulous that I didn't know who he was, her voice climbed octaves and decibels. "The Doors? Baby Light My Fire?"

"Oh. I've heard that."

She'd grabbed my arm and pulled me into her room. "That song sucks. Listen to this."

~~

Teresa Marie tapped her pen on the huge class schedule they printed out on newspaper stock. "Chemistry II?"

My lab work was spectacularly good. It's just cooking, after all, only you don't eat the results, and the ingredients read like lines from Macbeth. But in lecture? It was a good thing my lab grade was averaged with it. So I poured through the lines in the schedule looking for a way to weasel out of Chemistry II.

"Awww." I sounded so disappointed. I was such a faker. "That's scheduled at the same time as the Economic History of the United States from 1550 to 1860. I can't miss that class." That part wasn't a lie. I'm still a monetary theory and economic history junkie.

Her blue fuzzy slippers swung dangerously close to my head as she sat up suddenly. She leaned down with the schedule and tapped a line. "Right here! It's perfect!"

"It's ..." I finally figured out which line the tip of her pen bounced on. "Astronomy? Really? It meets at night."

Teresa Marie squirmed with pent up perky Catholic school girl joy. "I know!" She leaned even closer to me, her brown eyes squinting up the way they always did when she laughed. "I've heard about this professor," she whispered. "He has a reputation."

"For what?" Immediately, my imagination went to the worst reputation a professor could have. Even before I got to campus, I'd heard that people fucked their professors for grades, but half way through my first semester, I was already shocked, disillusioned, disgusted, outraged, and finally jaded - the five stages of growing up - to find out it really happened. "I'm not desperate enough to fuck a professor yet."

Teresa Marie squeaked outrage then burst into giggles and smacked me. I swear the sun rose with her smiles. She was too perky to be punk, but damn, she was a wonder. "Not for that. For other things."

"Like what?"

She rose from her bed. "Sign up with me and find out." With an evil chuckle, she grabbed her laundry basket and headed out of her dorm. I'd brought mine with me, so I followed her down into the basement. I questioned her through wash cycles, drying, and folding, through studying Calculus and another hopeless stab at my chemistry lecture notes, but Teresa Marie just giggled and shook her head so hard that her long, black curly hair whipped into her eyes.

~~

The first two classes for astronomy, we watched Carl Sagan videos. I loved that man - meaning Carl Sagan. Not as much as I love James Burke, the science historian, but still, I could have listened to Carl explain the theory of relativity for hours and been fascinated. So I was content, but I still hadn't figured out what the professor was notorious for. He spoke a bit at the beginning of lecture then turned on the video, and afterward he talked about the themes and science terms in the video then talked another ten minutes about a planet or other astronomical body. Nothing daunting. He said we weren't to memorize distances between planets or their relative sizes, "since it's on a scale so vast you're going to have troubles making those numbers mean anything real to you. Just get the general idea." So maybe he was notorious for easy As. Who knew? Teresa Marie did, but I'd given up asking her.

The third class was almost the same, except at the end, he closed his book and took off his reading glasses. He leaned over the lectern. "Next week, bundle up for class. We're going on a field trip."

"Where to?" someone asked.

"To the stars." His smile was a bit crooked as he winked. "Bring a blanket."

Teresa Marie clutched my arm the whole walk back to our dorm, her eyes sparkling like the Pleiades, but other than muffled giggles, not a clue.

~~

The sign on the lecture hall door said we were to meet down by the student union. I practically dragged Teresa Marie across the small campus because I was not going to miss this. All her teasing finally had a payoff. It was tonight. It was now.

We were the first ones there. The professor had a backpack that clinked when he moved. While we waited for the rest of the class, I asked questions, but he ignored me. It was one of those crystalline nights were every one of the "billions upon billions" of stars Carl Sagan promised shone, the moon cast shadows, and the air was so cold it hurt to draw a breath. I nestled deeper into my scarf and gasped through the wool in an attempt to keep the cold air out. Teresa Marie wore our blanket like a cape. I had to pee. Being cold always does that to me. And my nose dripped. Ditto.

Once class was assembled, the professor played Pied Piper and led us off campus. He led us past the chained gates of the abandoned mental hospital. My toes were so cold they burned. He crossed boulevards and finally stopped at a park.

The big hill, I remembered, was so packed with sleds and inner tubes in the winter that people waited ten minutes for their turn. We climbed up it, our breath coming out in frosty clouds. The hill was still covered with snow, but dirt-streaked. When we reached the top, the professor unfurled a piece of blue tarp and invited us to spread our blankets on it.

"Sit close," he told us, as if we needed to be reminded that it would be even colder on the ground.

He unzipped his backpack and uncorked a couple bottles of wine. Little Dixie cups with blue flowers were passed around, then the bottles, as he found a place to stand before us. He took a little cassette player out of his backpack that by now had to be empty and hit play. Suddenly, we were listening to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Behold, Orion!" He pointed to the sky.

Between pointing out constellations and telling us the myths behind them, he offered suggestions on our seating arrangements. Before long, he had us sitting boy, girl, boy, girl, which pissed me off because my leg had finally warmed where it pressed against Teresa Marie's thigh. Once she settled into her new assignment, Teresa Marie leaned forward to catch my gaze. The tiny girl was between two members of the football team. I had been placed between a frat boy and a guy from New York (Queens) who was also in my calculus class. Teresa Marie raised her Dixie cup to me in a salute.

Apparently, professor astronomy liked to play amateur matchmaker. I'm smart, but I didn't figure that out until our second "field trip." But this is about the first one.

So for an hour, I drank sour wine and stared at the sky and listened to myths of love, betrayal, heroes, and jealous gods. And froze my butt off. And lost feeling on the tip of my nose. And really, really, really had to pee. Then we got up and headed back for campus. As we passed bars, other students went into them, but we were too young to get in, even if it was just to use their bathrooms.

The quickest way back to our dorm was a short cut through the cemetery that bordered campus. The gates were locked after sundown, but some enterprising juvenile delinquents had peeled back a corner of the chained link fence, so we ducked through. We could hear cars passing by on a street we couldn't see. The snow in the graveyard was still deep under tall, mournful pines, and fresh as if no one had passed between the mausoleums for a long time. If it hadn't been for the brightness of the moon, we would have tripped over headstones.

"I have to pee!" Teresa Marie whispered.

I pointed to the lights of our dorm on the other side of a fence. "It's not that far."

She hopped. "Damn it. Wine goes right through me. Keep watch."

"For what? Ghosts?"

She gave me that look as she reluctantly handed me the blanket. She walked off a few paces. Her mittened hands fumbled with the button on her jeans while she cursed as only a Catholic girl can. "Fuck it's cold." Her teeth chattered as she squatted and artfully avoided wetting the jeans bunched around her knees.

I took sudden interest in the four foot high tombstone beside me. After brushing away the snow, I found out the dude died while serving as an Indian killer with Grant. I wondered if his family ever wished they could go back and give him an epitaph that didn’t make him look like a genocidal jerk. I wondered how decomposed his body was by the time they got it back from the frontier. He will fight no more forever, that's for sure.

I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as the sound of her piss hitting the snow made my bladder threaten to release despite my clenching.

"Holy fuck. Would you look at that?" Teresa Marie said.

My eyes clenched closed as I turned to her. One barely opened to find her. "Do I have to?"

She yanked up her jeans. "Come here!"

"Did you make a pee-sicle? 'Cause unless it's that, I really don't want to know."

She giggled. "You're so repressed sometimes. Come on. This is cool."

"A pee-sicle would be pretty cool. Gross, but cool." By then I was standing next to her.

She pointed down at a memorial plaque in the ground. She gripped my upper arm and bounced as she made one of those girly excited sounds. "I peed on James Morrison!"

It wasn't the James Morrison. The James Morrison was buried in Paris, not this crumbling rust belt town. This was a James Morrison. Any old James Morrison.

Teresa Marie didn't care. She danced around me in the snow, hooking our elbows like it was a punk hoedown. "Let's swim to the moon, uh huh, let's climb to the sky..."

"Let's climb through the tide," I corrected.

"Shut up, little Miss didn't know who he was until a couple months ago anyway." Grinning, she swatted me. "Out here on the perimeter there are no stars. Out here we is headstoned."

"Immaculate." I said in a puff of dragon smoke.

She kissed my cheek.

I wished we could have stayed there like that forever. Instead, I had to make the final dart over the fence to our dorm to save myself from pee-pants embarrassment. The spell was broken.

I should have pissed on the Indian killer while I had a chance.

~~

After a non-stop flight from Los Angeles, our room in Paris wasn't ready. "I'm sorry, but it is three hours until check in." It was a stop over. We were on our way to Rome. We'd catch the train for Milan the next morning. I still can't remember why we didn't fly to Milan or Rome. Maybe because we would have had to go through Heathrow if we went to Italy by air, and Heathrow was a nightmare of terrorist paranoia that year. You couldn't even bring a book on board a Heathrow-bound flight. Or tampons Or medication.

We left our luggage in the safe keeping of the hotel. Three hours to kill in Paris when you're punch drunk jet lagged and look exactly like your passport photo and your butt went numb somewhere over the Atlantic and still can't feel a damn thing?

"Come on. I know a place," I said.

It was further than I thought to Pere Lachaise. Maybe three or four miles. But we walked the entire way because after so many hours on the plane, it felt good.
I found a hidden, quiet bench for R and C. They fell asleep in the dappled sunlight. I wandered around and visited old friends. Oscar Wilde. Victor Hugo. Gertrude Stein.

My final quest was to find Pierre Abelard and Heloise. I couldn't think of something to write in a letter to them, because I didn't think I had any lost loves to find, but I figured I'd wing it when I got to their gravesite. On my way there, a girl with bright pink pig tails, a very short black skirt, and torn red fishnet stockings crossed my path. So of course I followed her. I only saw her from the back. She hiked over graves with no concern. I tried to be a bit more respectful of the dead.

We passed an armed gendarme. I worried about R and C getting into trouble for sleeping on that bench. For the briefest of moments, I glanced over my shoulder as if I could check on them even though I knew they were far uphill from me. I turned back. People swarmed around a corner. Sure my French punk girl had gone into the crowd, I moved with them.

I didn't see it at first because I was looking for her, but she'd disappeared. Finally, I looked at the place in the center of a circle of feet. It's small, and plain. Just a name. Maybe a date. I don't remember the tombstone because I had been awake for over twenty-four hours straight, my butt was still asleep, and frankly, I was beyond caring. (Pere Lachaise cemetery has a great website, but I still haven't looked for his headstone) I do remember the cheesy bouquet of flowers with a thick purple satin ribbon that said "The Lizard King" in gold stamp. I wondered if his spirit ever sighed over that whole Lizard King thing and wished he'd chosen a different epitaph for himself. Something that didn't make him sound like a stoner jerk.

And then for some reason, the twangy first notes of Moonlight Drive filled my brain. After that astronomy class, I've always sung the lyrics wrong, even though I hadn't thought about Teresa Marie for years. I guess I always wondered how one goes about climbing to the skies. Girls with mud brown hair don't know, but the ones with purple streaks in their black, curly hair and starlight in their laughing eyes? They probably do it all the time.

6 comments:

  1. That was nice, bittersweet. Have you been to Paris?

    Garce

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  2. Oh, glorious!

    What a perfect circle.

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  3. Garce - I've been in Paris twice. I have some good memories. Parisians were very nice to us, so I don't get the whole "the French are rude" thing. Hiking around Pere Lachise and late night trips on the Metro when street performers would jump on, do a quick show, then hop out at the next station are my best memories. The night train to Paris from Monte Carlo was the worst. (but I still prefer Italy)

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  4. Great take on this topic, Kathleen. As though Jim Morrison were the Muse or patron saint of a whole generation.

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  5. Jean - I fall in and out of love with the Doors music. Every time I go back to it, I'm amazed at how very good it was. The Doors were before my time but I guess there is such a thing as being classic.

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