Literary Fiction Philosophy relationships sex

Two in the Multiverse

By James Van Pelt
Sep 11, 2019 · 5,096 words · 19 minutes

Fire

Photo by Court Prather via Unsplash.

From the author: Long philosophical chats about the meaning of relationships, distance running, a bonfire, kegs of beer, and a moment of flaming transcendence.


"I've decided I'm a platonic lesbian."  Lisa leaned into the turn, keeping her feet clear of the cement curb that separated the inside lane from the football field.  The new tarmac surface absorbed each foot fall silently, and her breaths came rhythmically and soft.  She maintained the pace easily, but Ruth running beside her strained to keep up.

"Bull," said Ruth.  "Not meeting . . . the right guy . . . doesn't mean . . . there isn't one.  And I . . . wouldn't mention it . . . to the head of the . . . department.  She's not . . . that liberal." 

They finished the turn and moved into the straight-a-way.  An old man pulling a green oxygen tank on a tiny-wheeled cart like carry-on luggage walked purposefully the other direction in the outside lane.  He waved again as they passed.  Lisa nodded to him.

"I kissed a girl once, you know," said Lisa.  She glanced at her watch as they crossed the start/finish line.

"You were . . . drunk, and . . . somebody dared you to."

"It wasn't that bad."

"And that's not . . . platonic."

"I didn't say I wanted to do it again."

"It's time . . . to stretch."

Lisa slowed to a walk as they moved off the track and onto the grass beyond the end zone. 

"Thank god," said Ruth as they sat.  She pressed the soles of her feet together and drew them close to her.  "I love this position."

"You look like a little Buddha."  The setting sun's warm glow cast a yellow light on Ruth.  Dark hair and fair skin, eyes closed and content, a sheen of sweat on her face, Lisa thought that if Ruth wasn't god-like, she at least appeared as settled as a Zen master.

"What makes you happy?" Lisa asked.  A gate clanked and the old man shuffled onto the parking lot and away from them.  For the first time since they'd started their warmup twenty minutes ago, they were alone.

Ruth smiled.  "Oh, lots," she said.  "It's a day to day thing.  Like right this second, for instance, I'm glad to be doing this run.  I'm glad the sunset is so beautiful."  She opened her eyes and looked down as if in contemplation.  "Heck, I'll tell you what makes me really happy.  I turned forty last year, and my legs look as fit as any nineteen year old, and so do yours."

On the horizon, the edges of clouds were turning bright pink.  Above them and to the west, everything celestial took on some shade of pink or purple or lovely soft grey.  "Fifty miles a week will do that," said Lisa.  "But I still think I'm damaged goods.  I mean, where's my kindred spirit?  Where's my ability to connect to another human being?"

"You've got me."  Ruth lay back, straightened one leg and tucked the foot of the other under her hip.

"Do you mean that you are my kindred spirit, or that you don't know?"

Ruth smiled enigmatically, "You've got me."  She switched to her other leg and stretched it.  "But I'll tell you what.  If I wasn't married, and I liked women instead of men, there's no one I'd rather sleep with than you.  I've thought that ever since Mrs. Vermer's sixth grade history class when you let me copy your answers.  Blondes have always been my weakness anyway."

"Well, that's comforting, I guess.  Futile, but comforting."  Lisa stretched her legs in front of her and reached for her toes, lengthening the muscles in her back pleasantly.  She laid her cheek on her leg.  "Of course, sleeping with someone isn't really the answer.  That slimy Ed Tindle in the apartment above mine has propositioned me about a hundred times.  But, I mean, it's a kind of closeness, like a symptom of closeness.  That's what I mean.  A simple connection between one soul and another displayed through the physical demonstration of love.  Of all the people I've ever met, you're the one I feel most attracted to on the spiritual level, and you're a woman I'll never sleep with, so I'm a platonic lesbian."

"I knew it.  You just like me for my soul.  Besides, last year you were a Taoist, and the year before that you were reading Tarot cards.  For six months you ate nothing but ginger root, garlic and ginseng.  Remember when you decided to become a nun when you were a freshmen?  This is a phase."

"Trying to feel close to the unity of the universe is not a phase.  I've just attempted different routes."

"You've got to quit teaching philosophy," said Ruth.

Half of the sun had slipped behind the horizon.  Lisa traced the path of her shadow across the field until it blended into the distance.  From here, the high rises and hotels in down town Las Vegas caught the buttery light in a million reflections.  "Speaking of routes.  We'd better get going.  It'll be pitch by the time we finish."

"I like night running," said Ruth as she levered herself off the ground.  They walked a few paces, then broke into an easy jog as they left the track and headed toward the edge of town.  Within a few blocks, they had left the city and they turned onto their favorite dirt road, a narrow, winding, hilly path that wandered into BLM land and the desert hills beyond.

"Universe," said Ruth,  "is an oxymoron anyway."

"Nobody admirable comes to these parties," said Simon.  "Mostly football players and U.N.L.V. frat boys hoping to trick high school chippies into doing the horizontal bop in the back of their Broncos."  The truck bounced out of one rut and into another on the dirt road.  Simon stared morosely out the window.  With the sun barely lighting the tops of the hills, the cactus and sage took on richer and deeper shades.  If it weren't for their destination, he thought he would enjoy the ride.

Dave laughed at him.  "You don't go to a kegger to meet someone to admire.  You go to get primal: to dance and drink and let starlight fall on your head.  Besides, you're going to the party, so admirable is as admirable does."

"I never understood what that meant, and you badgered me into it.  I'm not responsible."

Simon braced his hand against the ceiling as the truck slapped hard out of a dip.  Dave held the wheel almost casually, the other arm resting on the door and an open can of beer firmly placed in his crotch.  "Parties are live in the moment kind of affairs.  They don't stand up to analysis."

The vinyl under Simon was old and cracked, but slick.  Every yaw or pitch of the truck slid him to one side or the other, and there was no real way to brace himself.  He thought, at least Dave can hold onto the steering wheel.  If we go too much farther, I'll be sick. 

The rocking, bumping ride mimicked his place in the world, he thought.  Nothing to hold on to, and no guessing which way to lean.  He grabbed on to the door jamb and willed himself to stay still.  He hated whining and self-pity, and he had to admit that lately he'd been both.

His ruminations, though, kept going that direction.  "That's not the problem, anyway," said Simon.  "It's the vacuousness of humanity thing again.  Everywhere I go, I find flawed, contaminated, thoughtless people."

"Thank you very little."

"Well, it's me too.  Where's the decent role model?  Where are the human being who have some sense of where they stand in the world; who really knows who they are?  Look at me.  I'm twenty, switched majors four times, changed religions twice, fell in love with a half a dozen girls, read every book on metaphysics I could get my hands on, and I'm still a boat adrift.  Where's the sense in that?"

The truck strained up a steep section, spinning dirt for a second, then grabbed solidly, bucking them over the top.  Below, in a wide, sloping bowl where several rude trails and roads intersected, a score of trucks and jeeps had formed a semi-circle around a huge pile of wood, ten feet wide.  A trail led away from the fire up the steepest part of the hill, and Simon could see it was a perfect amphitheater for a bonfire kegger.  A steady bass throbbing reached them from even this distance; the speakers rested on top of one of the trucks.

"It's probably the books, man: your studies," said Dave.  "You ought to major in something practical like P.E., where the only thing we worry about is how much air to put in a volleyball or how to eat a balanced meal.  Look at the bright side: maybe somebody will do something really stupid at the party and you can write another one of your depressing poems about it."  He cranked the wheel to miss a boulder in the road, then let the truck coast the rest of the way down the hill until he parked it next to a brand new Ford Explorer.

Simon yanked hard on the door's latch and threw his shoulder into the door to get it open, then stepped out.  Groups of people stood by the piled wood, around the keg and next to some of the trucks.  Beer smells mixed with dust and juniper, and the music slammed across the whole scene, resonating in his chest.  "I just need a luminous moment," Simon shouted.  "I need a sign that humanity's worth the effort."

Dave came around the front of the truck, beer can in hand.  "What?" he shouted back.

#                 

In the valleys, cool patches of air washed across Lisa's face and hands.  After five miles of up and down running, she felt a steady warmth in her hips and that perfect proportion of effort to breathing that marked her best runs.  Ruth puffed along behind her in the purple dusk.  By now, though, she was completely warmed up and had lost the gasping quality of her speech at the track.  Overhead, the brightest stars were just peeking through, and Lisa knew the full moon would be up soon.

"Do you know where we are?" Ruth said.

"I think we went along the top of that ridge over there last week."  She waved at the bluff to their right.  From the top of this hill, she could see the steady undulation of rising and falling land before them.  To her left, probably two or three miles distant and hidden by the intervening landscape, lay the highway; but here, they were alone in the desert, following a narrow but fairly smooth motorcycle trail.  "I figure," said Lisa, "that we can cut right in fifteen minutes or so, find a way up the ridge and head back."

She let the slope give her momentum on the way down, shifting the pressure away from her lungs, and she tried not to slap her feet too hard, which would eventually make her knees sore.

"You're obsessing about the impossible," said Ruth.  "Nobody connects with anyone else.  It's an integral feature of being self-aware.  Besides, it's not all that important."

"Really?" said Lisa.  The trail turned left, became rocky for twenty paces, then settled into a dry stream bed where the sand was soft and sucked a little bit at her shoes on each step.  Between the hills, the air smelled moist and alive.  At the top, the searing dryness of the day had tempered to the faint emanations of sage and cactus.  "To me, it's all important.  How could anyone live under those conditions?  Either you believe that you communicate with people, or you actually communicate with them.  If you admit that you don't, then you're saying that you go it alone.  Existence would be mean, isolated and pointless."

"You're communicating with me."

Lisa laughed.  "Words are about a thousand miles from experience, and we're talking, which is at least better than writing, but none of what I say to you will let you really understand what it is to be me." 

A trail led up out of the stream bed and toward the ridge.  Lisa turned on it and toiled heavily up the steep route until it flattened out above the stream.  She felt each step, how the dirt squirmed on one stride, how her foot hit a little uneven on the next, how her calves strained on each push-off, how the air rushed out of her lungs and then back in like a little beach covered and revealed by waves.  She felt coolness on her neck, slick with sweat, and all these things she felt, she grieved that she couldn't give to Ruth.  Ruth heard her, she thought, but she'd never be her.

"So we communicate," said Lisa, "in the least efficient way.  All I want is to be completely understood, and to completely understand somebody."

"Sex," said Ruth, "won't do that."

"Yes, I know."

A small hill, only a ten foot climb, rose before them.  "Watch," said Lisa.  She charged up the slope, and at the top,  spread her arms wide, palms flat like wings and sprung up; paused for an instant, suspended, then fell back to earth.  "Night running is for flying."

For a mile, they ran that way.  Arms out, swooping into turns, flapping like loons and laughing.  They found a trail that led up the ridge and crested it.  After a bit, they settled back into their pace, and Lisa's thoughts focused on the dark, the brilliant glister of star light and the impenetrable shadows beside each rock and plant.

"Listen," said Ruth after a rare, long, flat stretch.  The glow of the moon cast their shapes ahead of them; the reflected glare of Vegas lights painted the sky before them.  "Isn't that music?"

In the distance, Lisa heard a steady thrum of a bass, as if the hills had a heart and the pulse was near.

The running back, Phoenix Carlson jumped over the fire first. 

Simon had found a comfortable place on the truck's bumper to sit, and he'd filled one of the plastic beer cups with soda he'd brought so no one would force a beer into his hand.  They'd lit the fire a half hour earlier, and now the flames leapt twenty feet into the night sky.

Music slammed.  Some people danced.  Most just moved around in a kind of human Brownian motion, bouncing off each other, running here and there, wrestling, talking; and Simon was embarrassed by how horny it all made him.  Firelight washed over coeds in brief midriff t-shirts, firm bellies catching the flames and then hiding in the shadows.  They were all smiles and curves and sinuous motion.  Long legs, short legs, slim builds and full ones.  The whole idea of gawking at them with unfocussed (and unmotivating) lust shamed him, because he hoped he was a more noble person than that.  So he took to watching the fire for a while, but, without even recognizing when he started, he caught himself staring at a beautiful girl in a tight grey U.N.L.V. baseball jersey tucked into a short, black skirt.

"Have you noticed," yelled Dave over the music, "how cool the sparks are?"  Simon looked up.  Much of the wood must have been damp, because frequent, tiny explosions sent sparks flying randomly.  Like launched pin-point coals, they spiraled skyward then died.

"Yeah," said Simon.  It was then that Phoenix Carlson started his long run down the hill toward the fire.  Simon heard his whooping yell, a weird two-toned cry that cut through the music, and he caught a glimpse of him just as he entered the circle of light, a bottle in one hand, a manic grin on his face, and way too much inertia to stop.

Then Phoenix jumped straight into the flame.  For a blink of time, Simon believed he'd just witnessed a suicide.  Impossibly, though, the football player emerged from the wall of fire, hit the ground howling with joy and rolled ten feet.  For a second, no one moved.  Then his friends crowded around him, thumping his back, slapping his hand, offering him beer, even though he still held the bottle. 

How imbecile, Simon thought.  In his expensive looking, long-sleeved football sweats, and the bottle dangling from one massive paw, the man presented a ridiculous figure.  Surely, Simon thought, on a night like this, he has to be sweating like crazy.  He's got to be wearing the football stuff to impress the girls.

Simon was about to say, "That was really stupid," when Dave said.  "How great!  I've got to try it," and he rushed up the hill.  A handful of others joined him, and soon, one body after another hurtled through the flames, each behaving as if the leaping pyre had washed them clean and they were for a moment reborn.

From the speakers on the truck, a softer song started, something acoustic, and now the crackle of the wood was noticeable, and each fire-leaper's yell was clear.  A guy in a letter jacket dove over the wood as if sliding into home plate and landed in the dirt on his chest.  A gangly kid in sun-glasses broad jumped, then sprawled on his face, as happy as could be.  The girl in the U.N.L.V. baseball jersey cleared the fire like a track star negotiating an obstacle, and her expression was serious and measured in the air.  Her smile afterwards seemed self-congratulatory, as if she'd beat some inner demon in the flame.

Fire light reflected off the circled windshields and headlights.  It frolicked in everyone's eyes.

"Simon," said Dave, breathless and giddy, "you've got to go through.  It's a club, man.  Baptism by fire."

Simon shook his head.  There was an element of beauty to it, the bodies in the air, the flame swallowing and parting, the sparks fluttering up and out; the music and beer and energy, but he couldn't join in.  Phoenix Carlson did something stupid, and everyone imitated him.  No heroes in this crowd.  Just thrill seekers and kids playing follow the leader.

"Your loss, man.  Tomorrow you'll be kicking yourself in the head for missing another opportunity to do something wild."  Another girl jumped through, the heels of her shoes catching the coals on the edge, scattering them in a pulsating fan.   Dave said, "You know what I've noticed?  None of your poems are in first person.  They're all about what somebody else did."  He ran by the keg to refill his cup, then disappeared up the hill again where Simon could  see, by the light of the full moon, the crowd lined up to jump.

After a flash of indignation, Simon slumped against the truck and the cool smoothness of its bumper.  It's true, he thought.  Maybe I'm just missing life by standing on the outside looking in.  Maybe I ought to just join the fun and stop thinking about thinking.

But he didn't move.  Now the fire-jumpers were going for style.  One boy arched backwards and grabbed his feet as he went over.  Another came through with legs and arms splayed out, and another wrapped a blanket around his neck like a cape and floated out of the flame as if Dracula had returned and the night of the living dead was upon them.

Then, Phoenix Carlson yelled again, his peculiar, two-toned scream coming down the hill toward the bonfire.  The people who were still in the circle of light stood transfixed.  Phoenix was coming again, the legend, the first man through the inferno.  And he was drunk, very drunk.  His last time around the keg he'd knocked it over, then fell down himself, crying at his foolishness.  "It's O.K." someone had yelled, and Phoenix had stood in dignity, brushed himself off and apologized to everyone.

And in a flare of light, Simon could see him, barreling down, fast and unstoppable, a fundamental force of nature, as irresistible as an avalanche sweeping toward the bonfire, and the spectacle sickened him.  Simon looked away.  How, with no brain cells left, could anyone look to Phoenix Carlson for leadership?  What was there to admire?  What did it say about humanity? 

And while he was looking away, a movement caught his eye, at the top of the hill on the other side of the party.  Someone was coming.  They were running too, but controlled and smooth along the top of the ridge.  Two women, a blonde in front and a dark haired one behind; and the image was incongruous and alien.  How, in the music and drunkenness, in the flame and raw sensuality of the party, could two joggers show up?  They were miles and miles from the nearest road, even, but here they were, sliding down the trail with the deceptive ease of long distance runners.  In the moon they glowed; and for a second Simon thought of Valkyries riding from Valhalla: the blonde woman in front was some kind of angel, not really touching the ground so much as passing above it, and he could feel his jaw drop and goose bumps tingling on his arms.  Nothing could seem so out of place or surreal.  It was like the painting of a middle class living room complete with flowered couch, and in the middle of the room, as realistic and palatable as that couch, floated an alpine mountain.  Either one by itself was fine, but who could picture them together?

Then Phoenix Carlson reached the gap between two trucks, his head down and arms pumping, screaming his victory cry.  And the crowd watched his progress.  And the golden joggers came down the hill.

Then, just where he should have leaped, Phoenix Carlson tripped.  And instead of rising over the fire; instead of creating the moment of glory and the triumphant retreat from the edge of disaster, he vanished head first into flying wood, scattering coals and scorching heat, and he didn't come out.

Lisa said, "It's a party."  At each hilltop the music intensified, and soon she could see flickering of light on the surrounding heights that suggested a still out of sight fire.

"Should we go around?" said Ruth.  "Some or our students might be there.  We'd probably not be welcome."

But there were no side trails and neither of them was foolish enough to run across the cactus-strewn desert by moonlight.  It would be a sure invitation for a foot full of needles and a long, limping walk home.  So they ran on.

A few minutes later, Ruth said, "You were saying?"

The music rang clear now and Lisa caught a good, solid whiff of wood smoke.  She said, "Only a teenage thinks sex is an answer, but there's still something in it--a moment sometime that's close to what I'm talking about.  Maybe only a metaphor of it."

"It can be pretty darn good on its own," said Ruth, "without standing for anything else."

"No, you got to follow my thought here," Lisa said.  As they topped a rise, she caught the first glimpse of the fire, but the trail led down again and she lost it.  "It's that moment when the lovers move beyond conscious thought--and, of course, it doesn't happen lots of times, but sometimes it does--and they're each doing for the other as if they're doing for themselves.  You never know it when it’s happening, but you remember it later.  The isolation is lost, or there's an illusion that it's lost, and that's what I'm talking about."

"Whew!" said Ruth.  "I love it when you get smutty."

Exasperated, but laughing, Lisa said, "Ruth!"

She said, "Sorry.  I know what you mean."

The trail took them up again, and followed the line of a ridge directly above the party.  A group of people clustered around the kegs, and a few others leaned against trucks or stood talking, and the fire illuminated them all in mellow shades of gold and saffron yellow, like a Maxfield Parrish painting where everyone is lit by the last rays of a setting sun.

Then, the trail turned down, and Lisa could see that they would pass right through the circle of cars to where their path continued beyond.  It was the only way to go.  They had no choice.  So she started down, hoping that no one would notice them, or that no drunk would make a scene.

Then someone screamed, an odd two-toned wail, and Lisa saw a figure charging toward the fire.  Then he didn't turn where he would have to turn to miss the fire.  Then he didn't jump where he would have to jump to clear the fire.  He tripped instead and became one with the light.

Simon didn't remember pushing away from the truck.  Suddenly he was running, and he saw, as if frozen in amber, everyone staring, but no one moving.  Even the sparks from the fire seemed suspended.  Time ceased, but he didn't know what he should do; he just knew he had to move, and he was on the edge of the bonfire. 

He wasn't there first.

Lisa didn't break stride, but stretched out, when the man fell into the fire, and found herself there, not thinking, heat baking off her face, and in the middle of the flame and wood bending down to grab the dark figure sprawled face down in the middle.  Dimly she heard screaming, and it sounded like Ruth; and a little part of her mind said, "You're standing in coals, you'll burn, you'll burn," but another part acted on its own, grabbing him by his arms that were up, so his hands could cover his face, and she leaned backwards and tugged, but he barely moved. 

Then arms circled her waist; she saw them come round, and she tugged again as they tightened against her, hauling her back, and the man in the fire slid toward her; and she braced herself to pull again, and the arms around her waist loosened to help her do it, then pulled with her a second time.  There was no thought at all.  No plan.  She leaned; the arms let her.  She fell back, and the arms gave her strength.  A third time, and the arms were not separate; they were her; they were her own muscles straining against the weight of the man in the fire, pulling, moving, straining.  Flames flew up, past her, around her, and she could see down into the blaze: individual timbers, cracked and pulsing with fire life, pushed aside to accept the shape of the man.  And the force around her belly consumed her and lifted her when she yanked the last time, and the man was free.  They were out of the fire.

The woman, the blonde angel jogger was in the fire, and Simon's mind reeled at the sight.  What should I do? he had thought, and this woman was there, doing it, standing in the midst of the bonfire, reaching down to grab the football player from his certain death.

Nothing compared.  Nothing came close.  No gesture he'd ever seen even touched the image of the blonde woman in a jogging singlet, skin slick with sweat, charging into the flames without pause.

She tugged at the man, and Simon could see she would never get him to safety on her own.  He stepped forward himself; he grabbed her around the waist.  He pulled when she pulled, and the man was free.

A crowd surrounded them, beating at the burning spots on Phoenix's sweats, and they rolled him over.  His hands still covered his face, and Simon could see they were burned badly.  His hair smoked; his ears already blistering.  The front of the sweats were melted and smoldering.  Then Phoenix moved his hands away and started laughing.  Impossible, Simon thought, he's not dead.

Words slurred, silly with drink, Phoenix said, "You guys are all sissies.  It doesn't mean a thing until you crawl right into the fire," and he passed out.

Simon looked around.  Where was the woman who braved the flames?  Was she hurt?  Who was she?  And what he wanted most was to talk to her, to try and tell her what it meant to see a human do the thing she'd done.  How awesome, he thought, and he thought of how many times he'd heard others use the word without any idea what it meant.

Then, he saw her.  She was, already, running, the dark haired one behind, and without looking back, she ascended the hill until she was only a silhouette against the moon, and she was gone.

"Are you alright?" asked Ruth as they ran down the first hill.

Lisa blinked her eyes trying to see the trail, waiting for her night vision to come back.  "Huh?" she said finally.  "Oh."  She tried to think about the question, what it meant, and she rubbed her hand across her stomach as she ran; the feel of the arms was still there, the memory of shared effort.

"Yes," she said, then.  Gradually, the moon revealed the path, a silvery ribbon wending its way between boulders and sage, clear of cactus and soft to her feet.  "I've got some blisters," she said.  "My shoes are shot."

And she was gone.  Six guys lifted Phoenix to the back of a truck, and wrapped him in blankets to take him to the hospital.  Everyone else headed for their jeeps or trucks.  The fire they would leave to burn out on its own.

Simon looked up at the hill where the moon stood high and he had seen her last, but she stood before him in an after-image, strong and sure and swathed in flame.  Then Dave clapped him on the shoulder.  "Hell of a thing to do, fella.  That was one hell of a thing."

"Yeah," Simon said.  "I guess so."

They walked to their own truck.

Dave said, "You know, it's weird, but wasn't that woman your Philosophy professor?"

The bonfire crackled quietly behind them.  Now that the music was off, and all the others were gone, it was the only sound in the desert night.  "I don't know," he said.  "Who she is isn't as important as what she is."

Dave shrugged.

Simon thought about the slick vinyl in the truck.  He thought about sliding around without an anchor.  "Why don't you let me drive?" he said, and he did.

This story originally appeared in The Third Alternative.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."