The Crossing Chapter 23
The waitress looked about my age. Maybe a little older.
“What can I get you?” she asked, with the prettiest dimples I ever saw.
I ordered a grand slam, a coffee, and an orange juice. Biscuits instead of toast.
“Coming right up,” she said.
I pulled out Nausea and got to reading again. I wasn’t sure about Sartre. I was having trouble with some of the concepts, trying to work through them. The story was boring sometimes, even pointless. Nothing more than the diary of some guy floating around a French town meeting homosexuals and ex-wives, visiting the cafe and the library.
What kept me going was the underlying message—that we all define ourselves and our place in the universe. That existence must weigh heavy on you, or else there is nothing left to live for.
Her leaving was that heaviness on my heart that was making me aware of existence and forcing me to go out into the world and live true to myself. It was the thing that was allowing me to transcend and begin living a life aware.
Sartre talked a lot about becoming; about placing yourself in the world based on your own definitions. He challenged the idea that there was some sort of path laid out for every person and that we were constrained by circumstance. To partake in this becoming though, you had to see the world for what it was: crazy, insane, absurd. It made no sense. People layered understanding on it and made the rules as they went along. The only way forward was to become into every moment and define existence by the choices you made.
I had a friend in high school who called himself a Buddhist. He talked about things like transcendence and living in the present, too. I don’t know if Sartre knew anything about Buddhism but he talked a lot like a Buddhist polluted by the West.
I grew up Catholic. Took the catechism and went to Sunday school. Made a mockery of it, but still went every week after a fit. My parents said it was good for me, that it would make something of me. They didn’t even go to church.
I finished and was confirmed. I wished I’d never gone through with it. Out of principle.
I remember in confession one time I told the priest I had sinned. I went through the list of all I’d done and he gave me the Hail Marys and told me my forgiveness would be realized in the eyes of God if I followed his direction.
“I don’t get it,” I said to him. “I mean, what’s it for? You can sin, sin, sin, do all these horrible things and be a bad person in the eyes of God, then you say some prayers, play with some beads, and, poof, it’s as good as gone? You’re forgiven?”
“The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I told him, and threw my rosary down. Walked out of the confession booth without looking back.
I told my parents I’d lost my rosary and they bought me a new one.
Confession is supposed to be anonymous, but our church was small. The priest came up to me next week, touched the new beads I held in my hand, and said, “New rosary? It’s very nice.” He pulled my old one out of his pocket. “I found these lying around. Thought I recognized them as yours.”
He pushed them into my hand and closed my fist tightly. Brow furrowed and eyes burning, he whispered, “You know, my son, Hell’s a hot, harrowing place. I will revel in Heaven when I look down and see your body aflame in the depths.”
“Here you go,” the waitress said, and dropped a cup of coffee in front of me. “I’ll bring you the juice when the food’s ready. Thought you might want it cold with a hot meal like that.”
“You read my mind,” I said, and smiled.
She stood there another minute picking at her thumb. “Hey. What are you reading?” She bent her head to see the cover. “Oh, interesting. I read an essay by him a couple years ago. Really good stuff.”
I shook my head and smiled. “It’s dense. I like it though.”
She agreed, left, and then came back a few minutes later with a hot plate. “Enjoy your food.”
A little while later, just as I was finishing up, she asked if there was anything else she could get me. I told her there wasn’t.
“I’m Zooey, by the way.” She pointed to her name tag.
I introduced myself and said it was a pleasure. She was pretty and her hand was cool to the touch.
“Are you from around here?”
“I’m from Maryland,” I said. “Going to Oregon.” Told her I was riding my motorcycle cross-country. Seeing the US. Just exploring. Something held me back from the truth.
“That’s so interesting! Will you be in Denver long?”
“A couple days.”
I’m not sure why I said it. I’d originally planned to leave the next day.
“I’ll be here tomorrow,” she said. “Why don’t you come by and see me again? I can hook you up with a free piece of pie.” She winked and laughed. “If you come around two, I can sit with you on my break and talk about the book or something.”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “Okay, I’ll see you then.”
When I left the diner, I felt giddy, excited. I was content, and the rest of the world just melted away. I left all the baggage behind, the future, the past, and just felt the moment. Like I was supposed to.
I wanted to jump up and cheer. It was silly that a girl I’d just met, that a stranger who’d invited me to sit and have a conversation, who’d played a little game of flirtation with me . . . it was silly that I’d let all this go to my head. Especially when I had my girl to find.
That night I found another park bench right in the heart of Denver. I couldn’t sleep though.
Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. The stars whirled over my head and I tried to recall the constellations Duke had taught me.
I found the Hunter, the Scorpion, the Mama Bear and her Baby. I found the one he called the Southern Belle.
Duke had stories for these stars, though they never sounded quite like the stories they tell you in grade school. Duke’s had their own special flavor. I told him he should write songs about them.
“I’d call the album Starry Nights,” he said longingly. Then he punched my arm and bared his teeth in maddening laughter. “Listen to me. I sound like some sap.”
The story he told me about the Southern Belle started with a girl named Andrea, whose rich antebellum parents kept her holed up in their mansion. They gave her everything a girl could want or need, showered her with jewelry, pampered her, and hired maids and other help to keep her pretty and absent of chores.
After her morning brushing and dressing, she had all the hours in each day to do as she pleased.
Her parents told her that she needed to find a good man to take care of her. One they’d be proud to give here away to. One who could protect and provide for her as they had done her entire life.
“How can I find someone, Daddy?” she said one day over dinner. “I’m never allowed to go out. You say I need to keep my skin pale and my mind pure. I’m a prisoner here.”
“It’s just not true,” he mother began. Her father held up his hand and proceeded:
“It is true, darling. We know it. But you’re coming of age. All the political functions we attend, the parties and gatherings, you’ll be happy to know you’ll soon be a part of that world. To mingle with men of my caliber will be your delight.”
The parties were exciting at first. Soon the thrill wore off. Each party was exactly like the next. The girls were spoiled brats, catty and cold. The boys were foolish. They had no ideas of their own but professed virtues and principles as if they had the wit and experience of traveled saints.
Andrea grew sick of it.
One night she snuck out of her bedroom when everyone was asleep. She went down to the Bayou, a dangerous place her parents had forbidden her from going.
At first she was frightened. The night was cold, alligators swam the waters, and hoots and hollers sounded in the distance. She didn’t let it stop her.
She followed those frightful sounds to a clearing in the wood, where men dark and light, burnt from the sun and fieldwork or colored by God, danced and drank with skimpy little girls. Played the strings and sang good songs. Tapped on pots and pans with sticks.
They stopped dead when she walked up.
“Who are you, princess?” said one of the boys. The crowd erupted in laughter.
“Andrea, daughter of the Senator.”
“What’chu doin’ so far from home?” the boy said, circling her. Toying with her dress.
“Looking for something more,” she said.
He stopped before her. Eyed her up and down.
“What’ch ya’ll think?” he shouted. A girl spoke first. “Let her drink!”
The crowd cheered and the merriment resumed. The boy kept her company all night and Andrea fell in love.
She started sneaking out twice a month, going down to the Bayou and making love to the boy who’d welcomed her. His name was Pearce.
Here she felt happy, excited, like life was worth living. Pearce said she fit right in, and Andrea knew he was the one she’d spend her life with. Maybe he couldn’t provide for and protect her like her parents did, but he could give her what she needed and would defend her until her dying day.
She didn’t tell her parents—she planned to run away with Pearce instead.
The night came, and she left through her window as she had all those nights before. She met Pearce down at the Bayou.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “We’re both leaving everything behind—you more than me.”
“Yes. It’s the only way we’ll ever be together.”
In the morning a maid found Andrea’s room empty. She ran to the Senator and told him and his wife that Andrea was gone.
They immediately sent for the police and gathered a search party, sent word across the whole state that Andrea had gone missing.
It wasn’t long before the princess and her captor were found and brought back home. The boy was scowled at by the Senator, the police, the whole town. Beaten and battered, he was thrown back to the streets.
Andrea, on the other hand, received apologies from the police and her father and friends of the family’s for the boy’s cruel intent.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she cried. “He’s the boy I want to marry. He’s the only person who ever cared about me.”
“You’re brainwashed,” her father said. “Poor girl, you’ve been taken advantage of. That boy’s a monster.”
“No, Daddy! You’re the monster!”
Andrea was confined to her room for months. No parties, no family dinners, nothing. The maids locked the doors and the groundskeepers bolted the windows. She was a prisoner again.
Eventually Pearce came looking for her. Stood at the base of her window in the midst of the night and called out to her. She stood at the window and stared blankly. She could not speak. She could not cry. She just stared.
It broke Pearce. He cursed and hollered. He went to the general store and bought himself a pistol, then walked right up to the Senator’s house, knocked on the door, shot the maid dead, and slaughtered Andrea’s parents. He opened Andrea’s door and fell to his knees crying.
“You’re free, my love. You’re free.”
She walked over to him, pulled the gun from his hand, and said, “No, my darling. Now I’m free,” and shot herself dead.
God stuck her soul up into the heavens where Pearce could look to her from his own prison cell for the rest of his days. And that’s how the Southern Belle was formed. A beautiful constellation in the heavens.
Morbid, I know. But that’s how the story that Duke told me goes.
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