Earl not only said the “d” word, but said it twice, which on the hastily-written event write-up was the only real written-in-stone do-not-under-any-circumstances rule for the evening. Not that they could enforce it much, but it was enough to make him spend some time by shore, away from the party proper. He didn’t mind the respite, and while the waves lapped at his toes he looked up in complete clear darkness, seeing nothing but the stars and the satellites falling from the sky.
Beach party tonight. He scraped his mind trying to find times to remind him it wasn’t all bad, that all this emotion over him wasn’t wasted, and came back to that phrase. He said it casually in a hashtag, but maybe he remembered it from that one time too. After a shoot on the beach, the last day of shooting on the film they made together, they were both exhausted. Before the inevitable wrap party to come that night, they passed out for a spell in Jon’s room. Before that, though, Earl put on Summer Sun. It’s not their best, it’s not I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One or anything like that, he stammered to Jon as if he would have known what he meant, but I’ve been into it lately, I like it a little more than usual for some reason.
He put it on, and they just lied there on his bed. No reminiscing about the shoot, no complaints or jokes, they just shared their company together, in silence and half-consciousness. Summer Sun turned into the greatest album he never heard by them before, and Jon even made a point to ask Earl for a copy of it later that week. But that moment, that forty-five minutes of zen, that moment when they were closer to being true friends than any other time they knew each other.
I want to go back
To the time that I was sailing…
I always point to that moment, he told himself. I mean sure, I was attracted to him in the beginning. I get attracted to a lot of guys. But this was different. We created this thing together, something bigger than us, a piece of what we feel, what we believe, and a chance to share those feelings with others. We brought them out of ourselves together. That was always more special to him than suddenly getting drunk and sprawling across his couch and mumbling so, I’ve been thinking about us…
And if I could just go home
I could go around in circles…
Maybe not for the last song I ever hear, though.
In the darkness Earl could tell someone was walking up to him, and in a moment his eyes acclimated to the dark enough to tell it was Jon.
They both watched the satellites for a moment.
—So what was that all about?
—I’m sorry, I guess this is all still fucking me up. It’s… you know, it’s huge…
—Yeah, it is…
—And I’ve been… I’ve been trying to hang out with you, but I keep losing you to… Because I wanted to ask you…
He wanted to ask, and also didn’t, because he almost certainly knew the answer he’d get from him.
—Well… did you read it?
—Um… yeah. Yeah, of course I did.
Goddamn it. Of course he didn’t.
—Cool. So what do you think?
—Oh, I don’t know, it was good.
—Were the characters fleshed out, believable? Was the plot new and interesting?
—How did you like the underwater chapter?
Jon didn’t say anything at that point, and that was what hurt Earl the most. He started to walk away, back to his shoes.
—Earl, where are you going? What’s your problem?
He stopped, let out a sigh, faced Jon.
—I’ve been asking you to read my book for the past three months. I asked you three days into all this, if you could please read it, so that the last time we see each other… I wanted to know what you thought about it.
—I don’t understand… why do you want to know what I…
—Because you’re the only person in this place I like! This was the only thing in my life that I achieved on my own, that’s unique from anyone else. And even though I couldn’t get it published, even though no one but my parents read it, I just wanted my best friend to read it, before I go. Before I… disappear.
Earl started to tear up, despite himself, and sat down on the sand.
—You know when they say you never know how much time you have? It could be over any moment? I know exactly how much time I have, and it’s worse this way! What time I didn’t spend dicking around, I poured into this thing, everything I felt and believed, everything I was interested in… and no one will care. As I disappear with everyone else, I’ll do it knowing I achieved nothing.
They said nothing for a moment.
—I’m sorry, but… think about it though. We have only a couple weeks left, and you ask me to spend a huge chunk of it reading a book. Your book. They take a lot of time to read, you know? And I had other stuff on my mind, other things to sort out…
—You’re right. No one reads anymore. Not unless it’s a thousand pages long and it has nothing but dragons and fucking in it.
—Come on, Earl… You’re going about this the wrong way. Tonight, this party… this is a huge opportunity. You can really turn this around, share some great moments with some new friends. Think about it, we’re all together, strangers, friends, sharing this beautiful moment. I keep telling you, it all depends on your attitude. It really is true, even though it’s a cliché, that when a door closes, another one opens…
—Yeah, you do keep saying that, and you have no idea what it feels like when a door closes. When you fail over and over again. I can’t just forget that and be happy around a hundred people I don’t know.
—Well, what do you want from me? I’m sorry you resent me for the life I live, but if you think I’m going to sit around and feel sorry for you on literally the last day on earth, you’re sadly goddamn mistaken. So I’m going back to the party, and if you want to spend your last hours here not acting like a jerk, you’re more than welcome to join me.
This stunned Earl into silence. He let out a sigh or two.
—Wow. Maybe… You know, maybe you’re right. I’m being selfish, aren’t I? I mean, it’s our last day on earth… and I’m…
—It’s alright… it’s like you said, it’s huge. It’s hard to wrap around, I know…
—Yeah. Say, I bet you have some great photos on your phone. Can I take a look at them?
Jon produced his phone, and gently gave it to Earl, who made a show of swiping through some of the newer photos.
He then chucked it as hard as he could into the water.
Jon froze solid for a while, stammering, the shock of it not letting any swears or punches come out. Earl faced Jon and flipped him two middle fingers.
—I hope you find some rice, asshole!
The ensuing scuffle between them lasted probably much longer than it should have, since they were fairly isolated from the rest of the party. After a while they both gave up, tired from the effort and also probably weak from their blows. It was actually Earl who rejoined the party after the punch-up, leaving Jon to kneel before the shore and stare dumbly at the cascading water, at the stars and falling satellites.
True to Jon’s advice, Earl really turned the whole experience around for himself. He instantly made friends with the first guy he spoke to. Around his age, handsome, a smile with dimples, glasses and brown hair combed to the side like Peter Parker even with a slight receding hairline (and probably straight, he thought, but that’s fine). He said he was a lawyer (and told Earl don’t ever go to law school!, and they both laughed) and he sure looked like one, wearing a light sweater and collared shirt and if it wasn’t for his shorts and bare feet he would have looked like he didn’t belong on the beach at all. He was hanging out with a few others, who welcomed him warmly into the group and asked him if he had ever done cocaine.
Just like Jon said, it’s all about my attitude. They had between the seven of them enough in a little bag for what would have been a thick line that a mirrored-sunglasses-wearing gangster in an 80’s crime drama would have snorted whole, and each of them snorted a sliver at a time and smeared some around their gums. Not so bad after all, and besides, it’s not like they had to worry much about their health.
Earl took enough coke, not to turn into a hard-wired loony mafia stereotype, but to keep himself awake until the inevitable sunrise. And in between silly drinking (well, and snorting) games he occasionally thought about Jon. Maybe he was talking to some other girls about his cloud theory. Yeah, well, it might be a good idea, but it’s hard to brag about it and impress people when you have no hard copies to show them. For all that he said about living life to the fullest, it was performative after all. Those photos on his phone, as much as he swore it wasn’t true, were a record of his life’s worth just as much as Earl’s book was. He had done to Jon in a second what life had been doing to him for years, and even though he was having a blast he could still feel a couple small pangs of guilt and even regret.
Jon said nothing to him when he mentioned the underwater city. Two years ago, before his trip to New Zealand (a small, bright grass-green hovel with miniature circular doors leading to miniscule domiciles within the hills (It’s hobbitses, it is! We hates them! #bagend #lotr #newzeetrip)), Earl described to Jon a rough sketch of his book, and really got into when he told him about the underwater city. It was going to be just like his trip to Japan, the only time he had ever been on a plane in his life (Japan was the one place in the world Jon had never been to. That was the difference between Jon and Earl. Jon would have gone to Japan, then moved on to another destination. The first time Earl left his home he wanted to make sense of the place, his trip, the whole culture, so for a while he tried to teach himself Japanese. Among his many regrets, he includes the three months of a complete waste of time he spent trying to learn the Heisig method). Anyway, Jon could feel the enthusiasm Earl had for this scene, and it was this that made him say wow, that sounds awesome, I really hope you finish writing it sometime, because I definitely want to read it.
The revelry died down as the sun’s rays started to peek out, and eventually the group was reduced to lounging around on the sand, still wide awake and their eyes on the horizon. This gave Earl time to think about this sudden breakthrough. Every time he wrote something good, it was because he told Jon first, or Jon wanted to see the idea come to fruition, or he wanted to tell Jon to impress him. Sometimes he’d even scrounge some words together in a fragment or two, knowing full well they weren’t that good, simply because it had been a while since they had last hung out together.
In a way, it was Jon who helped him achieve what little he did in life. It was a comforting and distressing thought all at once. It was nice to imagine him having a positive influence on him, inspiring him to create like the old Medieval poets and their commemoration of the anthropomorphic Lady Philosophy. But it saddened him to think that maybe he had no agency, that it wasn’t the writing itself, but the need for attention, that motivated him. He wondered for a bit if he even was a good writer, or even a writer at all. What if only Jon had disappeared, would he have kept it up? Would he have finished, or even started, the book?
Jon was right. He failed too many times, and he was either too afraid or too exhausted to keep trying much more. It was a small miracle that Jon supposedly influenced as much as he did out of him. He shouldn’t have tried to drag other people down to his level so much.
Just when he was fully depressed by this thought, and realized he might leave his best friend forever without at least saying sorry, Jon finally arrived. Weary from whatever rattled his mind since their fight, he lied down on the sand next to Earl. With his free arm not wrapped around his new friend’s shoulders, Earl wrapped it around Jon’s shoulders.
—Hey. I’m Jon. Jon Borneau.
—Sometimes people call me Bon Jorneau.
—Heh… I get it.
Jon let out a sigh, and Earl turned to him.
—How did you do it? Travel to all those places?
—I worked for the state government a long time, I stayed at home with my parents and saved as much as I could. It was rough.
They spent the next hour or so in silence, until one of them mentioned, during the faint conversation they struck up then, that Earl had written a book. His new friend seemed genuinely impressed by this, told him he always wanted to write a book, and asked Earl to describe it. He got through the main premise and maybe the first three chapters or so before stumbling and backtracking through family trees and apocryphal lore and worldbuilding details before giving up, skipping right to the underwater city chapter.
Now light was coming over the water, and as the first sliver of the sun peeked out everyone gasped and got up to get a closer look, everyone except Earl and Jon and their new friend. Earl closed his eyes, and through his shut eyelids he could hear someone pick up an acoustic guitar, mute the strings and strum them with his pick with each count of one, two, three, four, before going into a familiar set of open chords.
Earl opened his eyes. This is it. This is the perfect last song.
Do you realize, that you have the most beautiful face…
Do you realize, we’re floating in space…
It’s not too obscure, but not so sickeningly mainstream. Its subject matter fits the occasion, of course. And it’s melodic, easy to sing to, builds to an anthemic chorus at the end, and for all that easy to sustain with just an acoustic guitar and voice. And the lyrics. Happyish, technically even optimistic, but devastating in their finality, once you really listen to them there’s no going back.
Do you realize, that happiness makes you cry…
Do you realize, that everyone you know someday will die?
Some of the people started singing along. For once, Earl didn’t begrudge them, but sang with them. His two friends beside him also joined in. On their backs they looked up at the steadily rising sun, ready for whatever it was going to bring. Maybe nothing, maybe oblivion, or hell, maybe we’ll all be uploaded into a cloud.
It didn’t matter.
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round…
They did. It was.