Get NiftyLit news & updates delivered directly to your inbox. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.

x
Skip to main content
Illustration by Garth Upshaw

Napoleon’s Tomb


Garth Upshaw
Nonfiction

The First Time

The first time I tried to kill myself, I was a sophomore at Verde Valley, a co-ed boarding school near Sedona in northern Arizona. White stucco buildings nestled in lowlands surrounded by gorgeous red-rock mountains: Cathedral, Seven Warriors, Cowpie, Napoleon. My mother had attended Verde Valley in 1949 when she was fourteen, and when I got into trouble at home – slamming doors, ditching class, smoking, stealing, dealing weed, cutting myself – she thought the school might make me happy, or clean me up, or at least get me out of her hair.

My new roommate, Ted, arrived on the second day of classes. We were both skinny white kids, but he was bigger and moved with a chin-jutting, chip-on-his-shoulder assurance. His plane was late out of Amsterdam and he’d missed his connection and had to sleep in the airport. “It sucked balls.” Ted flipped his hair out of his eyes. “But I’ll get my shit unpacked, and we can have some tunes.”

I thought we had the best double room on campus. Our own bathroom! A communal kitchen and lounge! Fanny Hill was an out-of-the-way dorm with a view down the valley towards Cathedral. Steve, a senior, had a single down the hall. Coach and his family lived in the attached house. Rick and a few other kids had rooms in a separate wing.

Ted blasted Exile on Main Street while pinning his concert posters to the wall. “I saw The Stones live over the summer. Fucking gnarly-ass shit. Got so wasted I woke up in some random chick’s bed.” He unpacked a giant glass bong and offered me a hit. “Ditch weed. Nothing special.” I sucked the harsh smoke in and held my breath without replying. Smoking pot made it impossible to form words.

I’d taken the bed near the bathroom, unpacked my quilt, jeans, and blue work shirts, and hung a tapestry from the ceiling to partition off the area. I didn’t have any posters or a stereo. I wanted to like Ted. But I was already having trouble.

He shoved his clothes in a dresser. “They don’t have any fucking curtains here. Let’s cut that thing in half, OK?” He opened a pocket knife with a flip of his wrist and pulled my tapestry down before I could say anything. “The chicks here are all ugly as shit, but I’ll nail them anyway. Pussy is pussy, right?”

I spent a lot of time with Steve, who was nineteen, a soft three hundred pounds, and had a full beard. I tagged along, not saying much, while he showed me the ropes. “Coach is cool, he won’t check after in-dorms – curfew – but we have to join the basketball team.”

So we signed up – all of Fanny Hill except Ted. The cracks and weeds on the outdoor basketball court knocked the ball out of bounds as I dribbled. Steve called time and rested with his elbows on his knees, huffing in great gasps. The rest of the team immediately lit cigarettes and blew streams of smoke into the air.

Rick, a smiley kid whose sentences didn’t always parse, passed out speed in the cattle truck on the way to games. We drove halfway across Arizona to play other tiny private schools, boys’ and girls’ teams jammed together in the back on mats, no seats, and a fug of smoke poisoning the air. Rick rattled a film canister. “Pep? Pep? Anyone want some peppity-pep-pep?” Most of us swallowed down a few of the small white pills.

Carol stood in the far corner, up high near the windows, clearly trying for fresh air. She was tall, had beautiful skin, a big afro, and knew how to play basketball. “Can we please have fifteen minutes with no smoking?” She never took the speed.

Everyone grumbled, but she had a point, so they put their packs away and pocketed the lighters, legs all tangled, shoulders sideways in the crush, tin-can ashtrays wedged between the mats.

Back at Fanny Hill, Ted never stopped talking, telling stories about how he fucked a smoking-hot chick or punched an asshole, or did a triple flip off the black-diamond skiing trail at his folks’ house in Aspen. He found a couple of other kids that reminded me of my so-called friends back home, and they hung in our room.

They stole my money, made fun of me when they thought I couldn’t hear (and sometimes when they knew I could), blasted rock and roll, and smoked weed constantly. And sure, Ted even fucked a girl a few nights. Loudly, clumsily, with me ten feet away, pretending I was asleep. “Oh, baby. Oh, baby.”

I told Sean, the cool taekwon-do teacher – who, rumor had it, had traveled on Ken Kesey’s magic bus and who, I heard years later, had blackmailed students to give him blow jobs. All he wanted to know was the name of the girl so he could bust her for being out after in-dorms.

Steve waved his hand. “Sean’s an asshole. Talk to Coach instead.”

That evening, I knocked on Coach’s door and explained the situation. He cocked his head.

“Let’s get Ted expelled.”

“What do you have for me?”

I smiled. “He keeps his bong on the toilet.”

“No shit.” Coach pumped a fist in the air.

Later, Coach stopped by, chatted a bit, and then turned to Ted. “Hey, I gotta take a leak. Can I use your head?” Without waiting for an answer, Coach opened the bathroom door. “What’s that? A bong?”

Community Life Council met the next afternoon, and just like that, Ted was officially expelled. “Fucking fascists,” he said. “This school sucks balls.”

 Early the next morning, there was a sharp rap on our door. Two enormous guys dressed in creamy button-down shirts and pressed slacks pushed their way in. “Which one of you is Theodore?” the bigger one asked.

Ted raised his hand, “Uh, me.”

They grabbed him by the upper arms. “Come with us, buddy.” Then they frog-marched Ted, barefoot and without his cigarettes, through the door and across the patio.

I never saw Ted again. None of us did. The rumor was he’d been kicked out of schools all over the country and Verde Valley was his last chance before his parents sent him to a military reform boot camp in Utah.

Deborah, the school secretary, brought me boxes and asked me to pack Ted’s stuff. I wadded clothes around his stereo, stacked his albums, and wrapped the Rolling Stones poster in a tight, tight cylinder. I felt sorry for Ted. I mean, I was glad he was gone, but I hadn’t thought he’d get sent to boot camp. There was no taking it back.

About halfway through the season, we played Phoenix Country Day. The four-hour drive sucked, and we rolled in late. “Hustle, hustle, hustle.” Coach clapped his hands and waved us into the gym. This school had money: a wood floor polished to a brilliant shine, solid wooden bleachers, and an electronic scoreboard. A dozen boys, in prime physical shape, ran drills on the court, basketballs snapping back and forth. Their red and white uniforms were clean. Their short hair was clean. Their clean white teeth sparkled in the light.

I wriggled into my tattered jersey, and we did layups and free throws. By the time the refs blew the whistle to signal the tip-off, I was jittery and sick to my stomach. The boys on the other team moved like polished racehorses, bred for perfection, and the chanting crowd was all theirs.

They stole the ball with impunity, scoring basket after basket, knocking us flailing backward across the gleaming floor, snorting with contempt at our wheezing incompetence. The crowd laughed and laughed, waves of hilarity echoing from the rafters, popcorn spilling through the bleachers.

One black-haired boy, two hundred and thirty pounds of unstoppable muscle, pushed his shoulder into me. “Faggot,” he hissed, then jammed an elbow into my stomach. I collapsed, unable to breathe, expecting the ref to call a foul, but the whistle didn’t blow. The crowd shouted and stamped their feet.

At the half, Coach had us come in for a big hands-together cheer, but all I wanted to do was crawl into a locker and die. The crowd started laughing again as we filed out, exhausted, with our heads down, long hair in our eyes.

The final score was ninety-six to six.

Coach wanted us to learn The-Valiant-Struggle or Adversity-Against-All-Odds, but all I took away was Fuck-The-Grownups and The-World-Should-Burn.

After we changed into civvies, the girls’ teams played. Carol, by herself, moved like water, like fire, smooth and fast and sure. The crowd was silent. Their coach double-teamed, triple-teamed, and then quadruple-teamed her. It didn’t matter, Carol cut through their defenses like a rattlesnake taking a mouse. I laughed and screamed myself hoarse whenever she scored.

Fanny Hill had a tradition of watching Saturday Night Live at Coach’s house. Steve always took the same seat, a smooth brown La-Z-Boy with the best view. One Saturday, I slipped in ahead of him and took the chair. He loomed in front of me, blocking the TV. “Get your ass out of my seat.”

“We should take turns, right?” I gripped the armrests.

Coach turned on the TV. “Oh, good. The Coneheads.”

Steve lifted me out of the chair by my arms and dropped me on the floor like I was a sack of garbage. I stormed outside, embarrassed and angry.

The garden hose was right there.

I made sure they could see me when I turned on the water and pointed the spray at Steve’s open window. “Fuck you!”

When Coach’s door flew open, I ran to my room and locked myself inside. Steve burst into the hall. He pounded on my door, then smashed it open. Wood splintered. I screamed.

He towered over me, clenching and unclenching his fists. After a minute, he turned and went back to his room. Coach never asked what happened. A week later, maintenance repaired my door.

***

I was in love with Lisa Harding, a junior on the girls’ team with straight, waist-length blond hair and a tragic demeanor. She chain-smoked and rarely smiled. “Heroin’s the ultimate, for sure. But you gotta watch out.” Lisa exhaled through her nose. “It’ll get its hooks in you.”

We listened to The Tubes, nodding in time to White Punks on Dope or Queen’s A Night at the Opera.

A few days before Christmas break, Lisa was away at a game, and I snuck out after in-dorms and let myself into her bedroom. We’d hung out there plenty of times before, but never this late. Sean was Lisa’s dorm head, and he was known to stay up, sneak around, and bust people. But I thought it was worth the risk.

A dead cactus in a ceramic pot languished outside her window. An ashtray overflowed on the nightstand. Lisa’s books and papers were stacked on her desk. I hadn’t brought anything to do or read, and I wasn’t about to snoop around her stuff, so I laid back on her bed – still in my coat, above the covers – and closed my eyes for a second.

“What are you doing?”

Lisa sounded more curious than angry. She was still in her jersey.

I sat up, embarrassed that I’d fallen asleep. “I dunno.” I shrugged. “Waiting for you.”

“Did Steve tell you to do this?”

“No!”

“Well, then.” She turned the lights out. “Get your clothes off and get under the covers.”

We fumbled with each other’s bodies for a few seconds, and I’d barely slid inside her when I came. “Oh! God! Oh! Oh! That was so good.”

 Lisa stroked my face. “Go back to your room and get some sleep. We have school in the morning.”

The next day, all my classes seemed to take forever. I kept checking the clocks, wishing for nighttime to come, vibrating with anticipation. I didn’t tell anyone about Lisa, not even Steve. The secret filled me with clean white light; the black clouds of despair were gone. In-dorms finally came, and I waited, leg jiggling, ‘till I thought Sean was asleep before sneaking back to Lisa’s room.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m not your girlfriend now.” She tapped a cigarette in the ashtray. “That’s not us, and besides, I don’t want to get pregnant. My dad would kill me.”

I mumbled apologies, red-faced, bewildered, and backed out of her room. Disappointment and confusion crystallized into a rage, swamping any rational thought, and I seized the potted cactus and threw it as high as I could, rushing away before its satisfying crash onto the patio.

***

When I got home for Christmas, Mom and Dad sniped at each other about money, the car, the position of the living room chair. Mom turned to me, her face bright. “You must be doing fine.” I couldn’t breathe.

She took me to the mall to buy “nice shorts,” though I said I didn’t want them and would never wear them. I shoplifted a pair of skull earrings I hoped Lisa would like and told my brother, Banks, I was in love. “I’ll be whatever she wants me to be. Boyfriend, friend.” The day after Christmas, I got in a fight with Mom, screaming and slamming the door in her confused face once again. I couldn’t wait to be back at school.

But Lisa didn’t return after the break. She’d told me stories of her father’s anger, of the string of shiny ex-wives who saw Lisa as competition, of trying to cause a miscarriage by drinking a fifth of tequila and throwing herself down a flight of stairs. I didn’t know how to reach her. I didn’t think to ask anyone, the school secretary or her advisor. I never heard from Lisa again.

In mid-February, I finally told Steve about Lisa, and his proud smile seemed genuine. “Good for you. A virgin no more.” He shrugged. “They come and go. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I shrugged back. I had wanted some sympathy, some acknowledgment of my deep sense of loss. I missed Lisa so much.

Steve and I played backgammon while listening to his eight-track tapes. Jethro Tull, The Who. We smoked hash oil and bet money he knew I didn’t have and would never pay. His girlfriend, Laura, was a freshman from Oregon. She hung out with us in Steve’s room and smoked, too. “Bummer about Lisa,” she said.

“Steve told you?”

I liked Laura. She was sarcastic, mouthy. Didn’t take shit from anyone except Steve.

“Yeah.” She ashed her cigarette in the general direction of the garbage can.

I hadn’t thought Steve would tell anyone, but I hadn’t asked him to keep it quiet, either. Still, he should have known not to.

I talked with other girls at school, but they thought of me as a little brother, someone they could put makeup on or kvetch about the boys they liked. Jenny had been Lisa’s friend, kind of, and she and I hung out. One day, after spring break, she offered me a container of muscle relaxants she’d gotten for cramps. “You want these? They mess up my digestion.”

I started sneaking out after in-dorms almost every night. I walked endless circles through the deserted campus – Fanny Hill to the music building, across the wash to Motel, past Sears, past North and South dorms, looping around Dogpatch. One night, with a sliver of moon lighting my way, I turned the corner by Brady Hall, and noticed a shadowed-shape the size of a small car looming in the darkness.

I froze, sure this monster would kill me. I welcomed the end of decisions, the end of the black despair permanently lodged in my heart.

The cow huffed once and ambled past me.  Its hot breath smelled of dirt and grass.

***

I clipped newspaper articles about tragic highway accidents, improbable industrial blender disasters, and unlikely lightning strikes to post on the community bulletin board during my rounds. Tara, a sophomore I had a crush on who never, ever noticed me, was appalled. “Who puts these horrible stories here?” I was secretly amused that no one, not even Tara, ever removed them.

Steve and I took remedial math from Coach: distance vs. time, the area of triangles, etc. Coach taught math the same way he taught basketball, with pep talks and anecdotes about people defying the odds. I didn’t need remedial math, I was, in fact, quite good with numbers and could have handled calculus, but I didn’t want to be marked as a “geek.” Math was the only subject I knew more about than Steve.

One Friday evening, very late, Steve and Laura kicked me out of his room, and the thought of making my usual rounds yet again filled me with hopelessness. On impulse, I swallowed the whole container of Jenny’s muscle relaxants and waited.

I have no memory of that weekend. Steve told me later that he walked me to the bathroom and watched me to make sure I was breathing. Monday morning was a blur of Steve slapping my face and forcing me to drink a cup of hot black coffee. He slung an arm across my shoulders and marched me to class. We had a math exam. “If a cylinder is thirteen inches high with a radius of two inches, what is its volume?”

I got a B+. Would have gotten an easy 100% under normal circumstances, and Coach knew that, but he didn’t say anything.

Jenny was furious that I tried to hurt myself. She stopped talking to me altogether.

Laura was furious, too. She wouldn’t shut up until I promised not to do anything that stupid ever again.

One afternoon, Terry, the anthropology teacher whose parents had donated a huge sum of money to the school, who laughed inappropriately, and who had no teaching certificate, led the class outside, and the subject of suicide came up.

Tara snorted and looked sideways at me. “Gotta do better than a handful of muscle relaxants to do the job right.”

“We had a faculty meeting,” Terry replied. “Decided it was OK.” He glanced at me and laughed and then looked away.

In front of the whole class. I had no idea what to say.

 

Footprints in the Butter

Summer in Oregon with Grandmother was over way too soon, and in late August, Mom dropped me and my sophomore brother, Banks, back at VVS. I wanted him to share my room in Fanny Hill. I was happy we were out of Phoenix and away from Mom and Dad. Steve had graduated and was back in LA, and I think maybe, unconsciously, I was trying to reverse my former sidekick role – become the leader and make my brother the minion. Banks – understandably – wasn’t having it, and after a couple of weeks, he moved into North dorm, so I asked Warren to be my roommate instead.

Warren was a scholarship kid from Phoenix, like me. Scrawny, curly black hair, again, like me, and we hit it off immediately. He loved show tunes, theater, and comedy. He was funny and smart. We listened to Lily Tomlin or David Live every night as we fell asleep.

Over winter break, I smiled and dodged questions from Mom, deflecting with a joke or rolling eyes with Banks. The day after Christmas, I took a bus to LA to visit Steve. Waiting at the cavernous downtown station, a middle-aged guy asked if I “could work.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I’m a janitor, and hungover as hell. I’ll pay you twenty bucks to empty some garbage cans and sweep.”

“Maybe.” I could have used some extra money, but assumed there was a catch.

He handed me a bill. “Here’s a five up front.”

I followed him down the street to a dilapidated, multi-story office building. He unlocked and opened the door.

“Up on four. I’ll wait right here.”

I turned and ran away from him, back to the station, and panted to a stop right as Steve arrived.

“Next time get off in Hollywood,” Steve said, “This added an extra forty minutes to our drive.”

Steve and his brother shared a walk-up apartment. Thick velvet curtains blocked out the light, and a funk of cigarette smoke and weed permeated all their heavy furniture. “What tunes are you into?” Steve rested his hand on a row of hundreds of albums.

“Some Tull?” We’d listened to Passion Play religiously last year at school, and I felt a wave of nostalgia.

“Yeah, OK.” Steve didn’t sound enthusiastic. 

“Throwback Tuesday,” his brother said.

We opened a bottle of tequila, took a few bong hits, and then Steve pulled out a baggie of what looked like mint leaves. “You want to do some dust?”

“Angel dust?” The newspapers were full of stories about young people who’d chewed their fingers off under the influence of PCP. I nodded. “Absolutely!” Those stories were about as believable to me as tales of razor blades in Halloween candy. Grownups were full of shit.

“Sprayed on mint leaves.” Steve waggled his eyebrows. “It’s killer stuff.”

The effects were instantaneous. Colored lights, tracers, the walls pulsing in time with my breath. It reminded me of acid, but I felt no tension nor paranoia, and unlike weed, I could talk.

“I’ve got so many ideas,” I said. My cheeks hurt from grinning. “Piling up in my brain faster than I can even think them.”

After much discussion of the pros and cons, we decided to walk to a Vons to get some groceries. It was only a few blocks, but it took half an hour. When we arrived, we wandered the brightly lit corridors, laughing at the neon colors, the idea of boxed cereal, the straight-laced families in advertisements. I got stuck in a turnstile, and it took Steve a minute to get me out. My appetite was non-existent, but I knew I needed to eat, so I bought a steak. Nothing else, just a single slab of meat.

Back at the apartment, Steve’s brother, whose name I’d forgotten, disappeared into his room, and I tried to cook the steak right on the burner because we couldn’t find a pan. Steve banged around in the cupboards, mumbling under his breath.

I was confused as hell, and I knew it, but I didn’t care. I kept smiling and smiling, talking non-stop, and even though the meat was half raw and half black and burned my tongue, I felt super smart and strong as hell. Bulletproof.

We stayed up for two days, taking another hit whenever our energy flagged. Steve finally sacked out in his room, and I crashed on the couch. I kept waking from twitchy, flustered sleep with wild dreams that slipped away like smoke.

I had to call a taxi to get to the airport for my trip to Portland to visit Laura, Steve’s ex. Steve’s car had been towed. “I’ll front you some dust,” he said. “Mail it to you back at VVS.” The taxi honked. “Sell it. We’ll split the profit.”

***

Laura’s dad, a wiry white guy going stylishly bald, picked me up at the airport in a brand-new, cherry-red Porsche. “They’re all up at the mountain, skiing.” He downshifted and ran a yellow light. “We’ll head to Timberline in the morning.” 

Their huge Lake Oswego house looked over the river through massive Doug firs. After dark, the floor-to-ceiling windows reflected the lush furnishings and old-growth beams. We played a game of chess with solid, angular pieces. He slid a rook forward. “That’s mate, son. But you gave me a run for my money.”

I shook his hand. “Good game, sir.”

He needed to head back to the hospital for a late surgery. “We’re hitting the road bright and early, though, capiche?”

I nodded and listened as he zoomed out of the driveway. I had a nip of whiskey from the cupboard and found a stack of Playboys in his bedroom.

The next morning, driving to Mt. Hood at ninety miles an hour, he turned to me. “I know you sent drugs to my daughter.”

I licked my lips. “Thanks for telling me.”

We made the rest of the trip in silence.

I didn’t know how to ski, so Laura set me up with her younger brothers, grade-schoolers, for a class at the kiddie slope. She and her friends waltzed around like they’d been born on the snow, and I felt a surge of disgust at my parents for being poor. Laura’s tiny brothers skied past me while I fell over again and again into the snow. I was relieved to finally head to the lodge for a cup of hot chocolate. Laura’s mom was distracted, thin, with stiff hair and wide eyes. “Watch your damn brothers,” she told Laura. “I’m exhausted.”

After dinner at the lodge, Laura’s dad went home in his Porsche alone. I took the minivan with the rest of them, and Laura and I entertained her brothers with clapping games and jokes. “How do you know if an elephant’s been in your fridge?” 

That night, back at the house, I snuck into Laura’s room, and we smoked cigarettes, flicking ashes out the window. I told her what her dad had said, and she snorted. “Yeah, they opened my mail. Hit the fucking roof.”

“I’m sorry.” I squeezed her hand. “My parents would never –”

“No sweat. They’re on the rag all the time, anyway.”

We fucked quickly under her covers, and when we were done, she rolled over and lit another cigarette. “Steve was better.”

Of course he was.

Back at school, the angel dust was hugely popular. I knew my roommate would be worried about the finger chewing, so I told him it was mint Columbian and only admitted the truth once he’d had a couple of hits. Warren exhaled a lungful of smoke in a long rush. “This is so good.” He grinned. “I absolve you fully.” 

I stole a scale from the science lab to weigh out portions and got Steve his money back in no time. Our room became party central, and I had crazy sex with Theresa and other girls, who also slept with Warren in a kind of endless free-for-all. But the dust ran out, so I called Steve from the pay phone on the quad, charging the call to a random towing company in LA. Steve sighed and said he wouldn’t send any more. “I’m worried you’ll get addicted.”

He was right. I’d had a hit every day since Christmas vacation. “What else you got?” 

“I’ll send some sweet, sweet Thai sticks.”

At assembly, Judge, a solid, serious white-haired administrator, said he had a major announcement. “Pay attention, everyone. There have been rumors of PCP on campus.” Judge took his time, and looked around the whole student body gathered on the stairs outside Brady Hall. “PCP is a large-animal tranquilizer. Its effects can be quite unpredictable. People have been known to chew their fingers off.” Tracy, Theresa’s roommate, punched my arm and laughed.

I hooked up with Sara longer than most. She was short and funny. Her dad had invented Post-it notes, but she didn’t make a big deal out of it. We took Music Theory from Carrie, who let us smoke cigarettes in class and lounge around on pillows. “Remember, your project’s due in two weeks.”

“We got this.” I snuggled into a pile of cushions with Sara and kissed her hand, her hair.

No one else bothered to do the project, but I roped Sara, Warren, and Tracy into my idea, and we performed in front of the school board, dressed in our best, wildest clothes. Tracy plucked the strings in the back of a piano, and Warren blew a conch shell while Sara and I recited Shakespere in fractured, overlapping verse. 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Oh, how my heart doth skip and dance with glee.

I snuck out almost every night to sleep with Sara.  She taught me how to go down on her, and we traded stories of our childhoods. Early one morning, her dorm neighbor, Beth, saw me creeping away. “You’re out after in-dorms.” She wagged her finger. “That’s against the rules.”

Beth turned me in to Dorm Council, a disciplinary body headed by Sean and staffed by Carol and a handful of other straight kids. Sean cleared his throat. “We have rules here for a reason.”

I lied straight to his face. “It won’t happen again.” 

I got busted for lots of other little stuff: taking food from the cafeteria, neglecting to clean my assigned classrooms, violating quiet hours. But I was friendly, funny, and teachers like Carrie stood up for me. In the yearbook, I was pictured with Dorm Council, waving at the camera and smiling.

Nobody liked Beth, and one night, when the full moon washed the mountains with silver light, I found a rock the size of a softball and threw it at her window. An amazing shot. Fifty yards. It shattered the glass, and I ran. The next day she told the story to groups of wide-eyed students. “It landed this close to my head. I could have been killed.”

On a rare phone call home, asking for money, I told Mom a story about hiking up Napoleon, and she laughed. “We called it ‘Napoleon’s Tomb.’ Funny how things change.” She told a story about stealing cigarettes from the dorm head and teaching her roommate to smoke. “They kicked me out because they thought I was – doing things – with boys. But, of course, I wasn’t. I wouldn’t ever.”

Banks hung with shit-kickers who listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, couldn’t stand the theater crowd, and thought Warren and I were gay, but Banks and I made sure we connected every few weeks. We free-climbed the crumbling sandstone cliffs on Napoleon or smoked Thai sticks and ran down the scree at the base of Cathedral. We talked about Mom’s fragile insanity. Dad’s obsessive bike racing. The Thai sticks made floaters dance in front of our eyes, and when we were ready to return, we flew down the mountain, jumping onto the loose gravel, twisting and slaloming around prickly pear cacti.

 On a lark, I ran for junior-class treasurer and won unopposed. I appointed Warren my Treasury Czar. We didn’t take student government seriously, but we were tolerated and even amusing at times. On parents’ night, I buttonholed frowning C-suite executives who’d flown in from the coast. “Hey, we’re raising money for an end-of-the-year dance.” I collected $206 and kept it all for myself.

I thought I’d cracked the code. Finally figured out how to maneuver through the world: smile and lie. Be funny, amusing, tell people what they want to hear. Pay attention, listen, laugh. Find nuance in classroom assignments, engage with bright eyes and genuine interest with teachers. Charm girls until they take their clothes off.

In spring term, Tracy, Laura, and I took Chinese history from Judge. Just the three of us. We had class in the library or in Judge’s tiny office. He assigned primary sources. Lao-Tzu, Confucius. Letters from China. We learned that the English had forced the Chinese to buy opium at gunpoint and that after WWII, the US had supported a totalitarian dictator. Judge had high standards and expected insight and articulate, logical thinking. I worked hard, loving the feeling of discovery, of connecting disparate bits of information into a compelling narrative.

Tracy’d had her stallion shipped from Toronto. She slapped his big, bronze side. “Rod. Short for Rod Steel.” I signed out one of the school horses, and in the soft, late afternoon sunlight, we rode over the ridge into the next valley. I loved the animal smell of the horses, the way they moved, rocking back and forth along the trails, the sound of their hooves on the hard ground. Tracy clicked her tongue. “Sometimes I whack Rod off, you know?” She made a quick up-and-down motion with her fist. “Makes him happy.”

***

John, the English teacher, had read classics at Oxford, had an ex-wife who still lived at the school, slept with a freshman, and published a spy novel called The Memory Man about an English teacher at a prep school in northern Arizona who saved the world from nuclear annihilation and fell in love with a student – a love that no one else could ever understand. One Friday, Theresa convinced him to drive us to Phoenix. We offered to pay for the gas. Warren said we could sleep at his parents’ house. So I sat in the front seat while Warren, Theresa, and Theresa’s friend Linda squeezed into the back.

Theresa convinced us to watch Eraserhead at the arthouse downtown. I felt assaulted. That screaming bird-baby. The feathers. We didn’t get back to Warren’s parents’ house until after midnight. It was warm and still, and we had sleeping bags, so we sprawled in the backyard by the pool. I chatted softly with Linda. She’d grown up in Anchorage and hadn’t seen the desert before coming to Arizona. I touched her hair, then kissed her.

She unzipped her sleeping bag, and we struggled to get our clothes off.

When the sun rose, Warren’s dad came out to clean the pool. “Morning, kids. Hope the movie was fun.”

Back at school, I ignored Linda. Instead, I had a crush on Judy, who painted dark, brooding landscapes. She took ceramics from Doug, who also had an ex-wife, Annika, who still taught at the school. He and Annika lived fifty feet from each other in tiny, matching two-bedroom houses at the north end of campus. Annika was Swedish, six feet tall. She never smiled.

Judy loved working with clay, but Doug creeped her out. “He comes up behind me and massages my neck and shoulders while I’m at the wheel. He tells me I’m beautiful, that he can teach me how to use my body.”

Judy didn’t want to get pregnant, wasn’t on the pill, and hated condoms, so we used our hands and mouths and fooled around late at night. She liked getting high first thing in the morning, so we smoked joints and laid in bed listening to Moody Blues or Cat Stevens.

One night, very late, I snuck over to Judy’s dorm, forgetting that she was on an overnight school trip. In the hall, I ran into Christie, one of the golden twins from Cleveland. Wearing nothing but a sheer nightgown, insubstantial as smoke. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey, right back atcha.” I smiled. “Wanna make out?”

“I know what you did to Linda.” 

“Who, me?” I raised my eyebrows. “I’m a bad guy, I guess.”

We kissed, pressing our bodies together, but when I suggested we go to her room, she refused. “That’s it for you, mister. I know your type.”

I had class the next morning and also had to take care of a load of clothes that’d been in the washer for two days. Chuck, the other English teacher – short and round, with trimmed salt-and-pepper hair, who lived next to the laundry room, who taught Portnoy’s Complaint, who’d slept with Brenda, a senior – bumped into me as I loaded the dryer. “Good morning, young man.”

“Yeah.” 

“Have you thought about Harvard? Or Yale? I heard you did extremely well on the SATs.”

“I’m considering my options.” I had no brain space to think about the future.

Saturday morning, two weeks before the end of term, the school secretary, Deborah, stopped by my room. “Have you made illegal phone calls?”

“What? No.” I rubbed sleep out of my eyes and lit a cigarette.

“There’s a CLC meeting at 1:00.” She smiled, but there was worry in her eyes. “You’re first on the agenda. Be there.” Community Life Committee was not Dorm Council.

Judy offered to take my mind off the upcoming trial, but it took me ages to cum, so I was late. CLC was not amused and, within a few minutes, decided to expel me. Technically, they only revoked my scholarship, but they demanded I be off campus by sundown, anyway. And they knew my parents couldn’t afford the full tuition. Judy helped me pack, and Deborah let me stay at her house in town since the bus to Phoenix wasn’t ‘till the next morning.

Deborah’s daughter, Robin, who got free tuition at the school, but lived in town with her mom, came to my room after Deborah had fallen asleep. “Kangaroo court, huh?” She sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you bummed?

“Nah. It’s cool.” I shrugged. “Want to fool around?”

I knew I was treating Judy, Sara, and these other girls thoughtlessly, that smiling and stealing and lying wasn’t the way I wanted to be, but I was confused. I thought I’d cracked the code, but deep inside, I knew that this persona, this smooth facade that seemed to easily slip through the world wasn’t right. I had no idea what to do differently.

Out the bus window, I watched the landscape become browner, harsher as we dropped off the plateau and into the Salt River Valley. I worried that my parents would be mad, that I’d have to endure screaming or bouts of tears from my mother, heavy sighs, and disappointed looks from my father. But when I arrived home, Mom had decorated my room with a big “Welcome Back” sign, and we had cookies and ice cream on the patio. “I was ready to leave, anyway,” I said and lit a cigarette. Sparrows tweeted in the mulberry trees, and the bougainvillea spilled its bright red flowers all across the back fence.

 

Epilogue

In 2010, when our kids were in middle school, Katrina and I took them to Arizona for a family vacation. I told Verde Valley we’d like to visit, and they let us stay in Annika’s old house at the base of Napoleon. The school looked the same, but large low-slung houses dotted the slopes of Cathedral, and the students were mostly from China, Japan, and South Korea. John and Judge still taught, but they weren’t there that day. 

We hiked through a big wash, red cliffs towering beside us, to Oak Creek and had a picnic lunch. At dinner, Mike, the earnest new headmaster, gave us a friendly sales pitch. We smiled and answered questions. Non-committal. At one point, Mike paused. “You’re not really thinking of sending your kids here, are you?” We shrugged and shook our heads. Mike relaxed. “Yeah, you seem like the sort of parents who want to be with their children.”

That night, after the kids went to sleep, Katrina and I stayed up late, sharing a bottle of whiskey. We talked and apparently had sex, but the next morning, head aching, mouth dry, I didn’t remember.

Yesterday, in the mail, I received a glossy three-page pamphlet from Verde Valley celebrating its 75th anniversary and asking for $750,000. The new headmaster said he was delighted to be joining the VVS community and was sure we’d all learned many lessons from our time there.