I never smelled the smoke. The band had barely started playing before the fire alarm went off and people started swarming toward the exit. There is only one.
You made fun of the bands I listened to. This band, The Crystal Method, plays experimental, ambient music. It’s melodic, even rousing, not simply background like much of the electro genre. You liked to mock the bands’ robotic, mechanized names: Zapparator, SX46. When you said their names, you adopted the mechanical patois of the computerized undead. You preferred folk music, melodies dominated by an acoustic guitar, maybe a banjo, or even a ukulele. The ukulele was as experimental as you got with your musical tastes.
A wall of bodies smacks into me with the force of surf kicked high by a storm. I hear screaming, but no individual screams. The many voices muddle together to create a singular noise, a noise very much like that white hush of swirling water that plays in the backdrop when you get rolled under by a wave, your body curling and becoming orbicular, like a nautilus.
When you get caught by a rip tide, they tell you not to struggle. I allow my body to be pulled, at first toward the exit. But then people start pushing in another direction. I’m being pushed back toward the stage, away from the exit, though it’s difficult to see the doors with all of the heads rocking up and down in front of me.
The members of the band have leapt out into the audience, hoping to surf our thrashing arms. The drummer, the bassist, the lead singer, they have disappeared. They’re somewhere at the bottom, the abyssopelagic sticky with spilt beer and discarded gum.
I get elbowed in the throat. I gasp for breath. My arms are pinned to my sides, but I arch my neck up to the black-painted ceiling, the air thick with cigarette smoke and the odor of fear. Beneath the malleable rubber of my canvas sneaker, I feel the edge of a cheekbone. Suddenly I feel like a murderer.
Do you remember, Elise, when we were on that roller coaster at Six Flags, and the cars stopped just as we were approaching the crest? Do you remember how they couldn’t get the coaster going for over an hour? You cried and cried, but I didn’t. I was too tough. I didn’t fear death, because, at twenty-two, who has any idea that amid the rambling, sprawling phrase of our sentenced lives, there must come that intransigent period? I tried to make you laugh, told you jokes about the old men in Speedos that we saw walking in front of our condo every morning. In winter and in summer, they came out, regardless of the weather. We made fun of them, but they knew more than we did. At some point in the fifty-plus years they had on us, they might have had a bout with cancer, a spouse that died, a child lost. They could foresee the end to their sentences. But up there, as I wrapped my arm around your shoulder and joked about the old men, you laughed, and it made me feel good to know I saved you for a moment from thinking about something as prickly as death.
We sit right at the line between high and low tide, and we feel the shifting. Your bikini bottom is filling up with sand as the water rushes in. You hold my hand as you tell me that your father is coming to pick up your desk, the one that you and I had moved into the condo three and a half years before. I don’t cry, then, either. I want to make a joke about returning to beginnings, that our end is like what they say about getting old, that you return to your infantile stage. Your bathing suit bottom looking more and more like a diaper, I want to say, lightly. But I don’t. I sit there and wait until the salt has seeped deep into our clothes and skin.
I think I feel you, for a second, when a woman behind me is pushed hard up against my back. Strands of her hair wrap around my neck, commingling in mutual sweat. I can smell her shampoo, which is strange because it’s difficult to focus on any one thing. Your shampoo used to smell like coconut, too. Do you still use that shampoo?
I feel her breasts against my back. I feel the bones of her hip grind against my thigh. For an instant, I feel everything: the weight of hundreds of bodies pushing, the streaks of pain that swell down my arm as it is sandwiched between crashing torsos. A roar overcomes the white hush. Somehow, I can still hear the music, though I know it has stopped and the band is long gone. The room becomes brighter, as if all the stage lights have suddenly turned to shine on us, the audience. I forget about you. But then the noise hushes entirely, and my bodily feeling drains away. You take a handful of rain-soaked sand and throw it at us.