The following is from Jaime Clarke’s World Gone Water, an exploration of the modern world told through anti-hero Charlie Martens. Clarke is a founding editor of the literary magazine Post Road and co-owner of Newtonville Books, an independent bookstore in Boston.
The last ice cube free-falls into the watery ice bucket. The ice machine rumbles angrily and then sighs, sputtering the last of anything it has, a spray of water coating the miniature glacier at the bottom of the bucket. I touch my wet fingertips to the corners of my dry eyes, blinking until the Aztec-patterned carpet comes into focus, my bare feet blending with the browns and greens, so that I’m convinced my toes are disappearing. I blink again and put one foot in front of the other.
Our limo driver, Happy something or other, rushes me when I push open the door. “Too stiff,” he says, digging his tree-trunk fingers into the ice bucket, fishing for a chunk of ice. Behind Happy I see my new Jenny, her prom dress shucked in the corner in favor of her brother’s army fatigue T-shirt and boxers, expertly holding a lit cigarette and a bottle of Budweiser in the same hand, waving from the balcony at someone as he passes underneath. The room’s population seems to have doubled since my trip to the ice machine, other prom couples having found their way to the suite I rented for me and Jenny. I recognize the two foreign exchange students from Germany, Johann and Gustav, both with their hair dyed so blond they look albino; in the corner opposite the master race is Quentin, a second-year senior, and his date, Yesenia, who Jenny knows is secretly seeing either Johann or Gustav, I can’t remember which. Jenny’s friend Zach puts his arm around her on the balcony and they scream down at someone, Jenny losing her beer over the edge. The sound of the bottle crashing sends Jenny into hysterics.
Happy finds a piece of ice that will fit into his glass of vodka and tells me he’ll be out in the car. He asks if I still need him, essentially asking if it would be better just to send the limo away, to stop the hemorrhage of cash, and I punch him in the face, my knuckles glancing off his flat nose, skimming his left cheek and ear. Happy drops the glass of vodka and, too stunned to say anything, runs out of the room holding his face.
Jenny pretends not to have seen, not wanting to acknowledge what I’m pretending to be capable of. She locks herself in the bathroom with Zach and the laughing continues, drowned out by the arrival of more prom couples, ones I don’t recognize, who ask loudly where Jenny is. Someone turns on the television, which is sitting on the floor, as the credenza has been moved out onto the balcony for use as a makeshift bench from which to gawk at the other prom couples streaming into the hotel.
I’m just a kid. The echo in my ear since dinner, Jenny’s justification for breaking up after prom, dulling the shine on the evening I’d spent weeks laying out. All gone with those four words. Where normally those words would’ve seemed a skip in a record to me, the turntable having been bumped many times before—sometimes my fault, sometimes not—I recognized right there under the white canopy of Octavio’s that with the end of the evening, it would be over between us. My ego had conspired with Jenny to set me up for just such a fall: Jenny calling me her old man, whispering her thankfulness at being with someone who was “experienced,” praising the maturity of our relationship, expressing her gratefulness at not having to stand around a keg in the desert, groped by novice hands, romanced by the indolent.
It was my idea, the whole thing, it always is, but I always fail to see—or rather, hope against hope that the entire house isn’t built upon sand that can slip away with something like “I’m just a kid.” My last Jenny had it sneak up on her, waking up one morning with the feeling that she was ready for what’s next, not really knowing what next was. The Jenny before that accused me of keeping her eighteen, an accusation easily defended against by the lack of supporting evidence, of the nonexistence of her case, but even after the verdict was rendered in my favor, she left.
Someone in a tuxedo sticks his head in the door and yells that Vic is going to jump off the hotel roof, and while it seems impossible that everyone knows Vic, or cares about his welfare, the room empties, Jenny and Zach bursting out of the bathroom, the smell of marijuana trailing them out the door and down the hall. The TV blares in the sudden silence, a commercial for a compilation of hit music suitable for parties. Couples dance across the nineteen-inch screen, grooving to songs from my past, reminding me of all my Jennies. One song in particular feels overly familiar, and I mumble the lyrics along with the television, marveling that I know the words to a song I haven’t heard in maybe fifteen years or more. The words come down from my brain as if I wrote the song, and I continue singing it even after the commercial has ended, am still singing it when a scream pulls me out the sliding glass door just in time to see Vic catch himself atop the building across the courtyard, windmilling to keep his balance. I spot Jenny and Zach, arm in arm, moving through the crowd below like celebrities at a charity event. The door swings open and Happy starts screaming in my direction. The officer puts my hands on the credenza and reads me my rights. The manager starts bitching at me about the state of the hotel room. Happy tries to get at me with a left hook, but the officer pushes him back. Vic teeters again on the hotel roof, the crowd below shouting up at him, Jenny shouting too, her pleas meant for Vic reaching my ears instead. I watch Vic trying to keep his balance. The officer wheels me around, and even though I couldn’t pick Vic out of a lineup, I can feel him falling.
* * * *
“‘Cheese’ on three,” Jenny’s mother says. “One, two, three.” The camera snaps and Jenny giggles as we blink away the flash.
“Should we go?” I ask, admiring Jenny’s turquoise prom dress.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” Jenny asks.
I’m thinking: hotel room, limo, liquor, two cigarettes, box of condoms, the list completed by the mad scramble to find someone in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven to buy the liter of Franzia. I shrug and Jenny smiles, clears her throat, and touches a strap on her dress.
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah, hold on.”
Jenny and her mother laugh as I jump down the hall to the kitchen to retrieve Jenny’s corsage.
“‘Cheese’ on three,” Jenny’s mother says after my fumbling with the corsage, before Jenny recognizes that I accidentally bought a wrist corsage.
The flash pops, waving Jenny and me into the final lap of our master plan, a night we’ve been planning since her mother agreed that Jenny could attend prom. So many late nights on the sectional in front of an unwatched movie ending in “Let’s wait,” so many aborted gropes in the steamed-up front seat of my car.
The last of the day’s sun colors a stripe of orange across Jenny’s forehead as I shut the door for her, then skip around to the driver’s side. I speed down the freeway toward the parking lot of the Marriott, where our limo awaits—Jenny knew her mother would add two and two if I picked her up in a limo, but I fought for the extravagance and persuaded Jenny to lie to her mother, something she’d never done.
“I still feel guilty,” Jenny says.
“It’s not too late to call off the limo,” I say, a little game we’ve been playing that up until now has given us some measure of power in the matter. We both know that power is gone now.
“I love you,” Jenny says, not as a way to end the conversation, or make it veer, but because it’s just something we say, and lately it’s the only thing that comes out of my mouth that makes any sense to me: “I love you, too,” I say.
“Slow down,” Jenny says. “We’ve got all of our lives. Unless you kill us with your driving.” She looks over at me and smiles, remembers my joke about how we’re like old people, a sentiment echoed by our friends, and I almost don’t look at the road again, caught by the way Jenny looks at me, which makes me feel loved, a look that makes me feel like I’m more than I know I really am.
We exchange my car for the silver stretch in the Marriott parking lot. The chauffeur opens the door for us and we feel like royalty. I point out our hotel room through the moonroof as the limo glides out of the parking lot. A shiver runs through Jenny and she says, “I can’t wait.” She slides her hand inside my purple paisley cummerbund, teasing.
“We could just skip the dance,” I suggest casually.
Jenny pulls back in mock horror. “No we can’t!”
“We’ll see after a few drinks at Octavio’s,” I say slyly, kidding.
“I left the fake ID in my other purse,” Jenny says, startled. “Oh no, I’ve ruined it.”
I shrug dramatically. She could’ve told me the limo had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, the driver killed instantly, the windows sealed, and I would’ve assured her it was no problem, a minor inconvenience, a trifling.
“Actually, Mario got fired,” I tell her, almost forgetting. “But he’s going to have someone from the kitchen stash the bottle in the limo while we’re eating.”
“Genius,” Jenny says admiringly. “It might’ve been a little obvious, what with you in a tux, and this.” She rotates the corsage on her wrist.
“Yeah,” I agree, “and I doubt there’ll be any other prommies at Octavio’s. So it’ll be like eating in a fish bowl.”
Jenny smiles deviously. “Got an idea.”
I smile back. “Yeah?”
“Let’s order in.”
That’s my Jenny. Bold and daring.
“Don’t know why not,” I say.
Plates clank around our feet as the chauffer opens the door. Jenny passes me the bottle of yellow-label brut and I finish it, the bubbles swarming in my head. Our chauffer says he’ll return the plates and silverware to Octavio’s, and I reach into my wallet and pull out a twenty. “Here,” I say. “Give this to the guy in the kitchen, would ya?” The chauffer looks at the bill with disdain and then snaps it up. Jenny laughs and we both know the guy in the kitchen will never see the money.
Stepping through the gymnasium doors, our names ringing in our ears, is like stepping through a portal in time: The walls are papered black, and silver foil streamers float magically through the air, colliding now and again with the silver, white, and black helium balloons hammering away at the ceiling of the illuminated tent anchored in the middle of the floor.
A slow song starts and I grab Jenny up, pressing her dangerously close, a violation surely to bring one of the chaperones. Jenny wriggles some space between us and I spot Jason and his girlfriend, Sally, twirling under a silver banner.
“My head feels like one of those balloons,” Jenny says. We sway in time to songs we’ve made out to many times before, the saccharine words carrying a tinge of weight on this particular night. “Did I thank you for dinner?” she asks.
“Yes, you did,” I say.
“Well, thank you again.”
“You’re welcome again,” I say, spinning her. Our forward progress stops and we twirl slowly in a circle, my rented shoes scuffing arcs in the polished floor.
“Are you ready to leave?” Jenny asks.
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“I think I am.”
A nervous excitement grips me. Earlier, in front of the mirror, there was still the limo to pick up, the hotel key to get, dinner, the dance itself. A song Jenny and I agree we don’t like starts up and I say, “I’m ready if you are.”
“Think the limo is back?” Jenny asks.
I look at Jenny to see if she’s stalling, and see that she’s looking back at me in the same way, to see if I’ll use the excuse of waiting for the limo to put it off a little longer, which I almost do, reminiscing about the last dance, knowing that once we leave the gymnasium, the prom will be just a memory, but I don’t want to send the wrong signal, so I say, “I’ll have a friend drop us off.”
It isn’t until Jenny and I stumble out of Jason’s car—the object of Jason and Sally’s jokes all the way to the hotel—that we realize we weren’t ready to leave. We realize it after we’ve opened the box of Franzia and kissed drunken kisses, doing everything we’ve done before, just up and until, our prom outfits laid out neatly, a stall we didn’t recognize. Jenny comes back from the bathroom and we laugh at our naked selves, telling each other it’s okay, that we’ve got all our lives.
From WORLD GONE WATER. Used with permission of Roundabout Press. Copyright © 2015 by Jaime Clarke.