Chasing the Ethereal, Part Three: Everything in Its Wrong Place
by Shaun Terry
Jennifer sent an email in the morning before going to class:
Dear Professor (one of three names she sent the email to),
I am really sorry, but a close friend of mine passed away last night, and I am not sure what I am supposed to do. If all goes according to plan, I am going to come to your class and try to take notes, but I am not sure how well I will do today. I hope that you understand if I am unable to make it or if I get distracted, but I promise I will try my hardest. Sorry.
Her first class had been Elementary Statistics. She hadn’t learned anything. In the top left-hand corner of the last page with any writing was the day’s date. Nothing more was on the page. From there, she went directly to her second class. She could learn statistics on her own, but her lectures for Introduction to Sociology might contain material that she would be tested on.
She sat in the third row as the projector hummed and projected a solid blue field. Then, fuzzy at first, words came into view: “Emile Durkheim.”
Dr. Gladman asked someone to define Structuralism before she switched to the next slide and all the students’ heads bobbed down toward their desks, with their arms protruding outward and writing utensils dancing in strange patterns above the wooden desktops. Dr. Gladman explained Durkheim’s work pertaining to anomie and his theories about suicide. “It seems that we generally need some order in our lives in order to feel completely comfortable and to be able to reach our full potential. When we see this absence of order—this ah-no-mee—we seem to kind of short-circuit and lack proper ways of going about our lives. For some people, this means that they feel a compulsion to end their lives rather than deal with the chaos that surrounds them.”
Jennifer’s head came up and she looked at the screen. She didn’t read the words, but she could see many of them. They weren’t very different from what Dr. Gladman had been saying.
That morning, when Dr. Gladman had read Jennifer’s email, Dr. Gladman had instructed Jennifer:
I’m so sorry for your loss. Having to mourn someone is always hard and I can’t imagine how hard that must be for you to have to deal with right now.
The subject matter that we’re dealing with in class today might be hard for you, so I suggest that you allow me to email you the slides and notes for today’s lecture, and you can read them when your friend’s passing isn’t so fresh for you.
I hope that you take care of yourself, first and foremost.
Jennifer hadn’t checked her email, though.
In a rush, Jennifer assembled her supplies and dashed out of the room, running just past Lexie’s right. The other students’ heads rotated in Jennifer’s direction, as they tried to understand what the commotion might be about. Lexie watched Jennifer rush out of the room, before Lexie looked at the boy to her right. Her arms made wings on either side of her as she put her weight on her hands, pushing against the desk and quickly walking to leave the room.
Jennifer took two steps before stopping and turning around. Her face was full of color and her makeup ran down her face as though it’d been funneled. “Hey,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Lexie asked.
Jennifer’s hand moved from one side of her face to the other as she sniffled. “My friend died last night.”
“What? I’m so sorry.”
“I just hung out with him yesterday,” Jennifer said as her sobs became more punctuated and rapid. She seemed to have difficulty breathing. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. I’ve never had something like this happen.”
Lexie’s face melted at its edges. “Yeah, I’ve never had to mourn someone other than really old relatives.”
They stood, looking at each other’s shoes in the hallway as people walked inconspicuously by.
Lexie asked, “Do you wanna go talk somewhere?”
Lexie walked with Jennifer to a table in a room far from the entrance and bar areas. Fido’s is usually crowded, but Jennifer quickly got their drinks. Lexie handed Jennifer her drink and lowered herself to the chair.
“I’m so sorry, Jennifer. You should’ve told me.”
“I emailed my teachers this morning. Honestly, they’re the only people I’ve told.”
Lexie sipped her drink. “Were you close to him?”
“No. I kind-of had a crush on him, but we weren’t close. Not that I would’ve dated him. That would’ve been too weird, but there was something about him. He was so unafraid to be him. Everyone who got close to him seemed to love him, even if a lot of people didn’t allow themselves to get close to him. He was so complicated and so simple at the same time.”
“How did you know him?”
“I don’t even know. I mean, I know, but it’s like, it wasn’t on purpose and it wasn’t normal. I didn’t even pay attention to him at first. It was kinda strange, honestly. Like, he was just over at Edwin’s house a lot. At first, I didn’t know why. I probably said ‘Hi’ to him a bunch of times before knowing anything about him.”
“Does he go to school with us”
“Oh, no! He’s old. He’s like 27 or something. Actually, we were just talking about his age yesterday. We were talking about you. 28, maybe? Fuck. This is weird. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. He had this big crush on you. I mean, not so big, but he’d talk about you and everyone knew he had a crush on you.”
“Wait. How did he know me?”
“He went by the bar, sometimes, but always with people and I don’t think you ever talked.”
“Wait. I know him? Who is he? We never talked? Did he order drinks?”
“Well, yeah, but that was it. I don’t think he ever said anything to you at all. You probably wouldn’t recognize him.”
“I don’t wanna know. I don’t need to know. Why did you tell me? This is so weird.”
“Lexie, this isn’t about you, okay? Fuck, man. My friend just died!”
“I’m sorry, Jen! I don’t know how to deal with this, either, but I definitely don’t know how to deal with a dead person I don’t know having a crush on me. Why would that ever come up? I don’t understand it. Why would anyone have a crush on me? Why would a stranger have a crush on me? Why would a 27-year-old man have a crush on me?”
“I think he was really 28.”
“But now he’s dead, so some weird, creepy, 28-year-old strange man had a crush on me, and now he’s dead, and what am I supposed to do about that?”
“I don’t fucking know, Lexie, but you could be a bit more sensitive about it.”
Lexie looked at Jennifer, realizing that she might’ve made a mistake. She felt justified in her feelings, but felt it inappropriate for either of them to be fighting over the subject. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I wanted to make you feel better. I’m just confused.”
Jennifer put her hand on Lexie’s.
As Lexie drove from the coffee shop, she thought of all the times that her mother had told her to be leery of older men, how strange it had been that an older, strange man had a crush on her, and how much stranger it was that he’d suddenly died in a car accident. Even at school, everyone knew that white, cisgender, straight men were trouble. But now he was dead. How innocent had the crush been? Maybe he’d been at the bar and someone had caught him looking at Lexie in a way such that it was clear that he found her cute. Maybe that’s all it was. What was important was that no one’s completely innocent, and no one wants to die at the age of 28. How must Jennifer feel?
Lexie arrived at work a few minutes early, clocked in, did prep work, and got ready to serve drinks. She wore a black blouse and tight bluejeans with cowgirl boots. Lexie was about 5’5”, thin but curvaceous, with chestnut hair and hazel eyes. She had full facial features, but she wouldn’t necessarily stick out in a crowd. The sleeve on her black blouse revealed a pair of horizontal lines on her upper arm that bubbled up from her skin like the thick film on soup that’s been sitting without having been stirred. She had a similar mark on her upper-thigh. She carried herself with confidence and she didn’t usually speak up unless it seemed necessary. She was dependable and kind but not overly warm.
At the bar were some regulars who lived nearby. They were mostly Vanderbilt students, but she didn’t know them well, other than that they sometimes came into her hip little dive bar, ordered a few drinks, and were often playful with Lexie, but no moreso than most male patrons were. All in a row on the barstools, the young men sat with their shoulders slumped, like defeated big cats. Each occasionally wiggled or lifted an arm. From behind, they might be mistaken for sacks of lumpy potatoes: headless. No one said anything for a while.
Lexie asked the men how they were doing. After an uncomfortably long pause, Edwin spoke up: “It’s a sad day.”
Lexie’s neck elongated. She knew.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Edwin explained, “It’s odd—almost like some alternate reality.”
“It’s this reality, Edwin,” Alex said.
Edwin stared at his beer for a moment. “Yeah, you’re right, Alex.” He looked at him desperately. “We knew this guy. Knew.” He shook his head and sipped his beer. “He was a construction worker, handyman guy. It’s strange that we became friends at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, so he first came over when we first got the house.”
“My mom and I got this house.”
“So it needed some work: some paint here, some wiring there. We called around, and Justin—oh, his name’s Justin—well, we called around and hired this company. Generic name. Something like ‘ABC Construction and Handyman Company’ or something like that. Anyway, he would work there, and while he was working, he’d have a beer or two, but there were always people over—it’s six guys who live there—and so he’d just end up hanging around. At first, it was weird, like, who’s this random construction guy, and why’s he just over here? But he was hilarious and kind and wise and interesting. I don’t mean that in some patronizing way, as though he was interesting because he grew up lower-middle class in a Southern suburb. He was just insightful and goofy and had a lot of interesting perspectives on things.”
Lexie’s torso bent forward at a 45-degree angle, and her forearms laid on the bar.
“Well, he died last night.”
“Oh, man?!” Alex exclaimed. “You have to just say it like that? Damn, Edwin.”
“What?! It’s true. How do you want me to say it? Sorry!”
Edwin looked over at Alex before looking down at the bar, then back up at Lexie and down at his beer. He raised the glass to his mouth and allowed some of the liquid to slide into his mouth. “So he got in this car accident last night. I thought maybe he’d been drunk—although I don’t think he’s ever gotten a DWI before—but it turns out that it wasn’t him. I don’t think he was an alcoholic, but he drank a lot of beer. I mean, he probably was drunk last night, really, but he wasn’t the one driving. That’s what I meant. It just sucks. I don’t think any of us have ever lost a friend before. It’s hard to even accept, really. Like, we’re never gonna hang out with Justin again.”
Alex chimed in: “No ICP, no more potato-sacking that ass, no more dry-humping friends on the couch.”
Another friend, Dmitri, spoke up, “Oh, we can still dry-hump.”
Lexie asked, “Potato sacking?”
Edwin quickly released a lot of air through his nose as he gulped down the beer in his mouth, and laughed aloud. “Haha! Yeah, so he told this story one time.”
“Edwin, you’re terrible at telling that story,” Dmitri said.
Alex: “No! No one tells it better than Edwin. Just let him tell the story.”
Edwin started again, “So we had a few people over at the house, and it started with an innocuous question, like, ‘Hey, Justin. Do you like to hunt?’ Then, he said, ‘No, but I’d punch a deer in the face.’ ‘What the—? Are you kidding?!’” Edwin tried to not laugh. “‘Yeah, there’s lots of deer runnin’ ‘round my neighborhood, but I cain’t shoot ‘em. So when I see a few roamin’ ‘round my yard, I’ll sneak through the woods and just watch ‘em for a while.’ ‘What? How long?’ ‘One time, I just sat there for two hours, just watchin’ ‘em. When one was on his own, I army crawled up behind ‘im through the grass, then slowly stood up.’” Edwin was telling the story through giggles at this point. “‘As soon as he’d turned my direction, I punched right between the eyes as hard as I could, and then…’”
“I potato sacked his ass!” another friend, Ricky, vigorously delivered the punchline.
The men all began laughing, but Lexie just stood up and looked at them, her mouth hanging open. “Wait, what? He potato sacked…? Huh?”
Edwin smiled, subtly, and looked at Lexie. “We don’t really know. I mean, there are theories, but he’s never explained it and no one’s pressed him enough for him to explain. It’s just funny. Like, maybe he put the potato sack over the deer’s head and tickled the deer? I dunno.”
“Fuck! I’m gonna miss Justin.” Alex said.
“Cheers,” Ricky replied.
The men raised their glasses and clinked them on one another.
Alex suggested, “We should get some people together and play some Aaliyah, ICP, Tesla, Pink Floyd—”
“Earth, Wind, and Fire!” Dmitri offered. “I remember, one time, I farted in the kitchen. Justin was asleep on the couch at like two in the afternoon, and he doesn’t open his eyes or roll over or anything. He just says, ‘Did you hear that asshole talking shit behind your back?’” Lexie and several of the guys started laughing hard.
“One time, when I’d first started drinking—maybe the first or second time—I asked Justin how you know when you’re drunk and he said, ‘When you ask that question!’” Alex offered. “There are so many things he did and said that I’d never forget. So we’re gonna have people over tonight? Tomorrow? When, Edwin?”
“Why are you asking me? Any time, really. When do y’all wanna have it?”
“Let’s make an event,” Ricky said. “I don’t wanna keep away any of the people who really loved him.”
“He really loved Lexie,” Alex said.
“Alex!” Edwin admonished.
Lexie replied, “It’s okay. Someone told me earlier today.”
Edwin said, “I think he never said anything because he didn’t wanna creep you out. It’s interesting because Justin had a pretty healthy love-life, but he noticed that girls at Vandy acted weird around him. Maybe it’s his age, maybe it’s where he comes from, maybe his accent. He’s a pretty normal-looking guy, but he said that he thought he creeped out a lot of girls.”
“You know, Justin once said that he wished he didn’t make Vandy girls uncomfortable by simply existing.” Dmitri pointed out.
Lexie smiled an obviously fake smile. Her lips went sideways and nothing around her eyes moved. “It’s okay,” she said.
Edwin’s head tilted to the side and his eyebrows moved toward the middle of his forehead. “Well, if you wanna come, you should come.”
Lexie got Edwin’s address and phone number and told them goodbye when they left. She said that she might come to the get-together. She spent the rest of her shift thinking about this mysterious man whom people seemed to love, despite that he had been such a fish-out-of-water, and that he’d had some sort of crush on her. She thought about how Edwin had been right: she would’ve been creeped out. She was creeped out. But maybe she’d been wrong to have been creeped out. Maybe she really would go to the party.
She went home that night, got out her planner, her books, her laptop. Between reading and math problems, she thought more about whether or not she should go to the party. She thought about this strange man and how she’d reacted to Jennifer. She felt bad for how she’d reacted but didn’t want to stir things up by giving another apology.
She didn’t finish her reading, and it took her a little too long to fall asleep.