William Hurt died yesterday. He left behind a quirky, impressive body of work, that included such classics as Body Heat, Children of a Lesser God, The Big Chill, The Doctor, and dozens of other film and television roles. He won the Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman. I first saw him in Broadcast News, and that movie has stuck with me for four decades.
When I was a freshman in college in 1989, I thought I saw William Hurt sitting alone in the unlikeliest of places. I was 18 and in Boston. I'd left Arkansas the week before. My dorm was larger than my hometown. I expected to see celebrities on every street corner. Who knows, though. Maybe it was him.
Anyway, ten years later, I wrote a short story about it.
“It was him. I’m sure of it.” He reached down to take her hand.
“Explain to me again why William Hurt would be having two scoops of mint chocolate chip in a no-name soda fountain on some hidden street in this part of Boston?”
“I don’t know. I read something the other day, that he was going through a nasty divorce or something. Maybe he’s slumming it. I mean, he had a beard, after all, which has to tell you something. And anyway, it wasn’t mint chocolate chip. It was rocky road.”
“You were reading an article on William Hurt?”
“Yeah, in Newsweek, or maybe it was the Globe –”
Josie gave him a smile and just shook her head at him. But it didn’t even matter if she believed him. It didn’t matter if she thought he was the sort of guy who couldn’t possibly have read an article about William Hurt. It didn’t matter if the whole world thought he was full of shit. If she kept smiling like that, and he could keep calling her his, it was enough. This had been the happiest month of his life.
They rounded the corner, and the entrance to the T came into sight. Their palms were pressed together, a thin sheen of sweat between them despite the nip to the September air. He had wondered more than once in the past month what the winters here would really be like. In his imagination he would need snowshoes to work his way down Commonwealth to class.
As they began to descend the stairs, and the fading sunlight was exchanged for fluorescents reflected off of dull tile, it occurred to him: “Besides, what exactly do you mean ‘this part of Boston’? I’ll have you know this is the best ice cream in the city. Anyway, Scoops has sentimental attachment for me, and I wanted to take you someplace special.”
She flashed him another smile as they headed underground.
In fact, it was true: Scoops had been the first place he’d ever been in Boston, brought there on an outing by his orientation leader, a girl whose name he could not remember but who had seemed to make it her life’s responsibility to ensure all of her group members “knew the ropes,” a phrase she kept using over and over. He cringed inwardly when he thought of how unbelievably uncomfortable he had felt. His Arkansas accent had attracted too much attention for a start. One girl had crossed the entire length of the dining hall to ask, in a voice filled with awe, where he could possibly be from. That was the least of it. A guy in his orientation group had asked where Arkansas was, and turned out to have some vague notion that it was in the Midwest. Trent had learned where Massachusetts was in the second grade, and it struck him as rude for someone not to know where the other fifty states belonged on the map. Another girl, this one with red hair done up with pink bows to match her bright pink lipstick, had asked in all seriousness whether his family were farmers. He didn’t think she had heard when he had replied that his dad was a pharmacist.
And then there was Neil. It was one thing to come to terms with a city where he didn’t know a soul, where people spoke what seemed another language, to learn the ins and outs of mass transit, all while trying to figure out how his philosophy professor could possibly expect him to read the entire Republic in the span of a week. It was quite another to have to share the only “private” space he had left in the world with a guy who might as well have been from another planet.
Neil had introduced himself as “a skinhead, but not like that Nazi shit. In fact, Trent had never heard the word used at all -- though it seemed an accurate description of Neil’s small, shiny, bald head. Neil had two tattoos, both of some Native American design -- though he gave no other indication of being Native American -- and he spoke of getting another soon that he was in the process of designing himself and which would incorporate the letters of his band mates in Old English script and four different types of knives. Neil played the bass guitar, and more than once Trent had had to ask him to turn off his amp, over Neil’s objections that he had to “keep up my chops if I don’t want everyone to kick my ass.”
And Trent doubted very much that Neil, who seemed to own no clothes that weren’t black and who never went out without a pair of combat boots, had taken to him either. Once, coming back from class he had looked up to realize that Neil and his friends were walking just in front of him and had overheard vague complaints about his Lynard Skynard poster.
And maybe in the end, it was his feelings of isolation and bewilderment that had led him to Josie in the first place. The first dorm social, only a month ago -- he had been sitting stoically against the wall, trying to look as though he belonged there since he hadn’t quite the nerve yet to ask anyone to dance, when she plopped down suddenly beside him. “Awesome boots,” she had said a bit breathlessly. But there was far more to Josie than her having accepted his snakeskins. He adored her instantly and completely. He loved the way her hair fell in big loopy golden curls around her neck. He loved how pale the blue in her eyes was. He loved her laugh and the way she would tease him just enough but not too much.
He especially loved the cream-colored sweater she was wearing tonight, with its pearl buttons down the front and the ragged unraveled spot on the side just above her hip. It gave her a look of classic beauty mixed with nonchalance that he associated with Boston itself and which he found absolutely intoxicating.
They stood on the platform and looked at the posters on the other side, an advertisement for a French film that featured a fish jumping out of a stream with two schoolchildren looking on from the bank, their prim uniforms in danger of being wetted by the inevitable splash; another with a giant Oreo squeezed into a shot glass, advertising some liquor that was supposed to taste like cookies and cream. There was no one else there, and it seemed almost frightening to speak, the echoes making the platform seem somehow even more empty.
And then suddenly there was someone else.
“Gimme’ a carder.”
They turned to find a man in a dark suit, floral tie askew, shirt tail half out, hair at all angles, confronting them, his hand held out and his jaw loose and hanging open. Trent was startled. He had never gotten completely used to panhandlers in the streets; but more than that, it happened so unexpectedly. Suddenly, the man was close – too close – close enough to smell the mixture of cheap aftershave and whiskey that hung about him.
“Sorry, don’t have any,” Trent mumbled.
“Oh, you do too,” the drunk drawled back at him. “I her’ you jinglin’ it in your pocket jus’ now.”
This couldn’t be untrue. The man had only just arrived. And, Trent really didn’t have any change. Still, it unnerved him, made him him feel like the man knew his secrets somehow. Josie gave Trent a nervous smile and nodded her head towards the other end of the platform.
“Sorry,” Trent mumbled again, and the two moved away.
Even after he had turned his back, though, he could feel the man following them, hear the dress shoes dragging slowly across the concrete floor. At last, when they had reached the opposite edge, when there was no where else to go, he felt the man’s finger tap insistently on his shoulder.
In an instant, something inside of him shifted. His back straightened, his whole body went rigid. Drawing his left leg slowly up, until the heel of his boot was even with the man’s shin, he brought his foot down with sudden ferocity, tearing the man’s leg open in one smooth downward thrust. He wheeled then, as the stranger began to howl, and struck out, catching the man’s nose and feeling it give beneath his fist. The man crumpled to the floor and redoubled his wailing. Trent could only stare down at him, unsure what to do next. What he settled on was taking Josie by the arm and leading her back to where they had been before, the other side of the platform, leaving the man lying, his nose beginning to bleed through the fingers that cupped it. As soon as Trent and Josie had moved on, he began to quiet down, so that his wails little by little became nothing more than occasional whimpers and muttered swear words.
It was not until he reached a good distance from the man in the heap that Trent realized Josie had gone stiff, that her arm was working to pull away from his. He turned then to look at her. He was unprepared for what he found. Her face was twisted in fury, and more surprising, it was at him she was furious.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what’s the matter’? What the hell did you do that for? What are you, psycho?”
Trent could only look at her, his mouth working so that his teeth ground together, but nothing coming to mind to say.
“You might have killed him.”
“I was trying to protect you,” he finally blurted, for in truth, faced with her derision, he was having trouble remembering why he had attacked this man at all.
“Protect me? Protect me! In the first place, I don’t need to be ‘protected’” – she said it as though it were a swear word – “and in the second, he was obviously harmless. He didn’t do anything to you.”
“He touched me.”
“And you think that gives you a reason to pummel him to death?”
“I really don’t think –“
“He just wanted a little change. Jesus. And you have to go and assault him for it. I can’t believe you.”
And suddenly, he couldn’t believe himself. It wasn’t the wino that worried him so much. It was the withdrawal of her love. It was the first time that he had ever done anything to make her angry, and he felt like a puppy who’s peed on the carpet. He wanted to slink, his belly low to the ground, to prostrate himself, as though this might somehow keep things intact. But like a puppy’s owner, she moved away from him, turning her back on him and refusing to speak. He could come up with to nothing to ease her anger other than, “come on Josie,” whispered over and over at regular intervals.
The train came after what seemed like an eternity of listening to the sound of the man’s whimpering behind him and a steely silence in front of him. They got on and sat together, but she said nothing on the ride back to campus. He was beginning to realize just how out of the way Scoops really was when they finally pulled above ground and stopped in front of the dorm.
He followed her in, but she managed to stay just in front of him no matter how fast he walked. Something was happening as he trailed along behind her, though. His fear at her anger was beginning to shift, to evolve. Little by little, he began to realize that he was angry himself. What right did she have to be upset with him? Subways could be dangerous – he’d seen it on television. People should have more sense than to make threatening moves down there. It’s not like he’d killed the man anyway. The guy wouldn’t even remember that it happened when he woke up from his drunk in the morning.
He wanted to say all of this as they stepped onto the elevator, but three girls stepped in as well, and he looked at the rubberized flooring instead, trying to hold onto his anger, to work out his argument for when they were finally back to their own floor.
When they stopped on eleven, they both got out, and he began: “Look, I don’t think you have any right to be upset. I mean, you don’t know what that guy might have done. He could have had a knife, or a gun, or anything. I didn’t even hurt him, really. It’s not like I killed him or anything. Come on, Josie.”
“I just didn’t know you had a temper like that. It’s a little scary, is all. I just don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? What does that mean?”
“It means, I’m not sure if we should be together. I don’t know. What do you think it means?”
“I punched some guy, and that’s it? It’s over?”
“I really don’t know. I don’t want to have this conversation right now, though. I’m tired, I’ve got Psych homework, and I just want to get it done and go to bed.”
“That’s not fair. You don’t want to have this conversation? We need to settle this now. We need to fix this.” But even as he stood there, saying it, his mind whirled: what am I going to do if this is over? How am I going to go on living on this floor with an ex-girlfriend? What will I do when I see her in her cream colored sweater holding someone else’s hand? “Psych homework can wait.”
It was clearly a dumb thing to say, and in the moment that it created, the instant in which the conversation was unbalanced, she had her opening. “No, it can’t,” she said quietly and just a bit sadly, and she turned and unlocked the door to her room. In the next moment, she was gone.
Neil was drinking a beer and plucking the bass in a seemingly random pattern when Trent got back to his own room. His Chemistry book was spread on the floor beside him, and it looked as if he was alternating chugs of beer, then bass, then a page of reading. Trent sat down on his own bed and stared about the room, in a bit of a daze.
“What’s up, dude?” Neil said in the way he always did.
Trent thought about it for a long moment, thought about whether he would bring this up with Neil. Thought about what Neil’s response might be, what good it would do to tell this stranger he lived with what he had been through tonight. And then his frustration won out: “Josie just dumped me.”
“Fuck ‘er,” Neil said without pause and looked back down at the Chem book.
“Sure, fuck her,” Trent echoed tonelessly. And then the world seemed to come back into focus for a moment. Looking over at Neil, he said slowly: “Yeah. Fuck her.”
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