The Bug

 

Marjay and Ken were the best of friends. Their association called to mind such noble precedents as Octavian and Agrippa, Rama and Hanuman, Elizabeth and Essex, Jay and Silent Bob. But their conversation of the previous night had made Marjay feel more like Freud talking to the Wolfman. Or the instant messenger equivalent thereof.

He usually had such fire. That’s what she loved about him. She wasn’t short of smolder herself. But more and more he was sounding like just another layabout, one of the slack-eyed sofa soldiers with their subsidized computers and their subsidized studios and their subsidized subscriptions to the multiplayer RPG of their choice.

There were lots of people like that. It’s not like there were that many jobs to go around. But Ken had always been different. He was a poet, sure. But he was good – and how many poets could you say that about? He even managed to sell some chapbooks, even better sell some tickets to his readings. Now he just wanted to sit in his room and stare at the wall. It sounded like the world wasn’t the only thing in the midst of a Depression.

Marjay had gotten upset last night. She shouldn’t have done that, she knew. It was too easy to yell at him, to say he was being lazy, that he was throwing it all away. She knew it was more complicated than that. Besides which, it hadn’t worked. He hadn’t even yelled back. He’d just gone more and more into himself, until she might as well have been IMing with herself.

What could she do? If he didn’t want to work, he didn’t have to. If he didn’t want to leave his apartment, leave the internet, she couldn’t force him. Oh, just thinking about it made her depressed. So Marjay put on a skirt and a halter and went down to the Square, to reminder herself of the wonders of the world.

By the time she’d gotten to the Common she was surrounded on all sides by people. Some of them were just children and some were greybeards but most of them were kids, kids like her. Some of the girls were thirty and could have passed for sixteen, some were sixteen passing for a very healthy thirty. Some of the guys looked like they needed to get out more and some looked like they lived under the sun. Whatever their ages, they were young; whoever they were, they were intelligent, thoughtful, joyful, full of life; wherever they were from, here they were; and whatever day of the week it was, none of them had anything else to do.

The sun was too bright for the firespinners or the tellers of bedtime-stories, too high in the sky for the leather-and-collar crowd or the sellers of strong drink. There were lemonade stands, carts selling hot tea or strong coffee, people with backyard baked goods or windowbox weed or a hundred and one flavors of popcorn or toasted soybeans or whatever else you could do with your daily grain ration.

Marjay went up to a beautiful woman wearing 40s-red lipstick and a kerchief over her blonde hair. She took a soy-paper cup of sweet berry tea and drank it greedily. She held out her hand and the woman shook it, laughing with her smile all the while. The little computer strapped to her wrist gave a whistle; Marjay’s gave a clap; and, a nickle having been exchanged, they went their separate ways.

Marjay wandered Harvard Square with the awe-struck eyes of a person who has nothing else to do but be in awe. She was hardly alone. At least as many people were watching as were performing. The next day, or later that night, the performers would be walking the streets as watchers – and no few of the watchers would be performing. What else was there to do?

The streets were lined with those who, whatever they were doing, were happy to Do under sun and in good company. Marjay saw jugglers, stilt-walkers, sword-dancers, belly-dancers, ballet dancers, breakdancers, painters, poets, playactors, everything people could think to do with nothing but themselves and what they could find. Marjay saw a troupe of maybe fifteen people, all head-to-toe in nothing but white pancake makeup, forming with their contorted bodies the number 3197. Marjay didn’t need anyone to tell her that this was the day’s Dow Jones average.

Someone pressed a joint into her hands. Marjay passed it along to whoever was next to her. She didn’t want anything just then. She certainly didn’t need it, not when there were beautiful people doing beautiful things all around her.

She listened to a violinist playing Bach and then four banjo-players going after Vivaldi. She got caught up in a conga-line on Brattle and had her portrait sketched on JFK. She helped a photographer pose four wives around a bouquet of roses, somewhere near Mass Ave. On the way back through the Square she ate a bouquet-salad of lettuce and sweet cheese and mint, and helped a little boy do a cartwheel, and kissed a man who must have been seven feet tall. He had to pick her up to kiss her. He seemed to be pretty well practiced at this.

Out by the Science Center was a cozy little big-top. It was only a penny to get in. Marjay returned the salute of a wheelchair-bound mime; her wrist gave a clap; and in she went.

It was a one-ring circus. Half the audience were in other circuses themselves. They watched with the attentions of true critics and the sympathy of fellow performers. Marjay saw a strong-man bend railroad spikes, a strong-woman do it better, a fire-eater swallow red fire and spit up blue smoke, two contortionists, three singers, and possibly the most risque clown she had ever seen – and that was saying something.

Marjay began to see a theme in the acts she saw. She was saved from guessing when a very pregnant vaudevillian explained the situation. They were The Seroconversion Circus. They went all over the country spreading joy, happiness, dirty jokes, and easy proof that being HIV-positive didn’t get in the way of anything.

Marjay could only clap her hands.

She tipped them a dime on the way out – such extravagance! – and waited until they brought down the tent. Then she picked out one of the singers, whose figure could best be described as incalculable, and asked her if she was interested in making a whole half-dollar.

The woman wasn’t worried about being propositioned. Not like there was a shortage of people giving it away for free. So when Marjay asked her to have sex for money, her first response was to laugh.

Her second response was less to jiggle than to ripple. Which confirmed to Marjay that she would fit the bill.

Marjay assured her that it wasn’t for her, not that she wasn’t interested. It was for her friend, who needed to be reminded how joyous life could be. And she thought she knew the perfect way to do this.

The woman took some convincing, but at length she rippled enthusiastically. She took Marjay’s four bits and went to wait at the appointed place.

Marjay called Ken and began by apologizing for the way she’d acted. If he wanted to go vegetable, that was his business. She loved him no matter what he did. And she wanted to make it up to him. If he would come out with her for a drink, they’d forget the whole thing.

It took some convincing, but at length she got him to agree. He would leave his apartment and go right to the blueberry-wine fountain, which that day was set up at the corner of Mass and Waterhouse. Marjay brought up a picture of Ken, wrist-flicked it to the singer, and then went back to wandering about the Square and all its splendid squalor.

She didn’t here from Ken that afternoon. Or the next day. Or the next. Two weeks later, on the first of the month, she got a frantic call from him. His first-of-the-month medical screening had come back. It seemed… he had AIDS.

It was a very long call. He cried. Marjay cried. She showed up at his room and they cried together. Then they split a joint and watched a movie. Then they went out, and watched the firespinners on the roofs of the Harvard buildings until dawn.

Over twenty-four hours his life expectancy had gone from 107 to 105, he was taking one pill a day, and he had reminded of how precious life was.

He didn’t call her the next day, or the next. When she saw him again he was on the street-corner, reading a new poem, surrounded by a sea of admirers as large as any in all of Cambridge. When he saw her he got down from his soap-box and ran to her and picked her up in his arms, and squeezed her to him, very tight indeed.

He gave her a copy of his new chapbook, dedicated to her, and give with three kisses for her brow. She gave him a box of condoms, a wink he thought he understood, and the happy smile of a person who’s gotten back their best friend.

-16 Chauncy, the heat-wave of 2011

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~ by davekov on 9 June 2011.

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