Note: the form of this piece was inspired by Susan Sontag’s short story The Way We Live Now. Sontag’s text is available to read online at The New Yorker.
The disco ball is suspended way above the floor of the gym, throwing a galactic spiral of light down on the Class of 20---. Phil stands in the centre of the court, talking to Sally, and tries to keep his long, swaying body within the confines of the neat red circle from which he used to pitch during basketball games. Freshly scrubbed, the beige floor gleams like a roasting pig, and like those pigs it seems to be rotating clockwise, slowly and inevitably, and to stop himself from falling Phil tries to focus on whatever Sally is saying.
I SAID, DID YOU HEAR ABOUT MAX?
Phil looks over at the drinks station – fold-out table, punch bowl, librarian – and then up, past the glittering disco-ball to those great white nets they have by the fire exit. A football trapped there bulges down threateningly in its pale cocoon.
Then Phil looks at Sally and says yes, he heard. Everyone heard.
Caroline, next to them in the group, says she heard it from a friend of his mother, who she bumped into one day at the supermarket. She only wishes she had found out earlier so she could have gone.
Did you go? Samuel asks, though it’s not clear to who, and Phil answers (face reddish, voice slurring) that no, he didn’t go, but it’s not like he didn’t try, his boss said he couldn’t take any more days off and he cried that day in the office, in the stationery cupboard, actually, and he couldn’t take his mind off it even when---
(Phil is clearly in no condition to speak on the subject, and Yasmine leads him away for a glass of water).
Caroline, who is heavily pregnant, raises a cup of alcohol-free punch to toast Max and the others all follow her, toasting their friend but also themselves. It’s not about who went or who didn’t go, after all, it’s all about remembering, that’s the important thing. There’s something a little kitsch about the punch, the sports hall (the smell in their memories of deodorant, of possibility) and they all feel drunk suddenly and more affectionate to each other, even Caroline.
Not far from the drinks stand, Daniel watches as Phil staggers out for air and the elderly librarian pours himself a discreet ladleful of punch. Daniel turns back to the others and it doesn’t take long to figure out what they’re talking about.
He was always close with Peter, wasn’t he. I hope Peter’s doing okay with it. (Says Alice, who is always thinking about other people).
Peter used to visit him, I think. (This is Yasmine, now free from Phil).
Yes, says Jamie, I hear he visited a lot towards the end.
I visited myself a few times, says Alice. He seemed to be coping with the whole thing very well. I know that’s a cliché, but he seemed to be making peace with it. He used to sit on a bench in the garden – they had a nice garden there – and just look out. He didn’t need to distract himself by reading or listening to music or by getting angry (which obviously none of us would blame him for, that’s one of the seven stages, we all know that). But I was impressed, he was always so gracious.
He was the same with me, says Daisy. I’d been warned about his appetite but when I brought him lunch – just in case, you know – he would always try his best to eat it. (At ‘lunch,’ Daniel rolls his eyes, as if she had admitted to bringing Max a hot air balloon once a week).
All the same, Daisy continues, it was strange to see him so thin, his complexion so far off what it usually was, his skin so different and unhealthy looking.
Then Yasmine recalls that the last time she saw Max he mentioned something about school and how much he missed all of them, which Daniel thinks is probably bogus and a fantasy of hers but doesn’t say this out loud because it wouldn’t help anyone.
At least he coped with it well, says Alice.
But God, it’s just so awful, says Jamie.
Just awful, says Joe (who has not said anything yet and they all forgot was there). But at least we remember him as he was and not as he became.
To which Daniel says, a little pointedly, how much Max always appreciated having visitors (though even he had to admit that he really did hate that hospital carpark and that café on the ground floor with condensation on the windows).
It’s not like we didn’t try, Joe says.
It seemed to me he really did make peace with it all, says Alice.
Outside, Harry’s task is to sober Phil up, and he keeps a peripheral eye on him as he lights up a cigarette and gazes over at the familiar landscape of the school buildings. He is an academic now, Philosophy of Science, and is gazing in the direction of the classroom where in his mythology it all began. Dark wood and Bunsen burners.
Peter sits on the step, his arm around Phil. (Phil is calmer now, in the cold air, a small puddle of his vomit on the concrete).
Harry, feeling sentimental, asks Peter if he remembers the biology lessons they used to have where they dissected frogs and how fun that was, in a morbid way of course. They talk about the football field in winter, the way the ground would sort of freeze over and how it reminded them of going to the countryside on holiday and hearing cows crunching over the soil, shifting their great warm bulks and flicking ice from their tails.
Am gonn’ be sick ‘gain, says Phil, and is.
A minute later, Peter pats Phil, now recovered from the dry heaves, on the back and uses his free hand to pass Harry another cigarette.
Do you remember when we had frogs’ legs on that school trip to France? Harry asks. Before the dissection classes started, thank God. And Max was so violently sick, do you remember, because it was his birthday, and he ate too many?
Max, says Phil, and hits his head with his palm. S’alreddy bin, las week, forgo’ bout it.
What was that, Phil?
Carn bleeve forgo.’ Sics june. Brou’ flours lars time. Shnt’ve forgo’ this time. (Phil hits his head again).
They decide not to listen to Phil until he’s sobered up and they can understand him.
Is that Emily over there?
Emily stands over the punch bowl, wearing a dark blue dress. She looks put together, they think, if a little sadder and slower than they remember from when she was sixteen and popular and with Max.
I think that is Emily. (The owner of the voice, Jamie, speaks in a sombre tone that conceals a taste for drama).
When Emily comes over, they don’t give anything away, and they even find themselves making reference to school, Samuel even having the good grace to allow himself to become the butt of the joke, the joke being that in school he was a pain, much too loud, doodling in notebooks, threatening to give it up to play the drums and look at him now. An accountant, permanently suited, permanent eyebags and many bank accounts, which makes the joke okay, somehow. Lucy marvels at how depressing this is, this death of old rebellion (and Harmony, the psychic, can’t help but agree).
Emily goes back for punch and gets caught up with the librarian (now drunk and quoting things) as Peter comes back inside, pulling Phil and Harry behind him. Someone, Phoebe probably, who was always tasteless and would say anything, recalls how Emily behaved at the funeral – tears, a rose on the grave and at the wake she even---
Stop it, says Peter, watching Emily set off, drink in hand, towards them.
I guess, the real issue is tact, says Phil (who has sobered up but not entirely). Of course, he says, I wanted to visit, I probably could have got the time off work if I really tried, but I didn’t want to be invasive, tread on any toes, you know, overcrowd the family or anything, you have to know, with these things, you have to know your pla---
Shut up, says Peter. For God’s sake shut up about it!
A song comes on then, an old one, just in time, and a hundred people on the dance floor whoop and cheer as the disco ball graces them with artificial stars. Sally runs over to Peter, arms wide, light glancing over her, going green then pink then purple.
EVERYBODY UP, QUICK! she says, taking his hand. I LOVE THIS ONE!