he last wisps of afternoon streak and evaporate into bluegray dusk, submersing Long Island in twilight. Harlan and Rik Giannati sit on the curb outside Rik's house, precisely 211 yards northeast of Harlan's house, the distance between punctuated by no fewer than fourteen subtly distinct houses of three ilks: the square, steeple-roofed Granada; the split-level LaSalle; the two-story, three-bedroom Monte Carlo. This last model was the choice of Kessler and Giannati alike some ten years ago when they, too, were assimilated in the mass exodus from Queens to Suffolk County that had gripped the hearts and genitals of so many. The streetlamps begin to glow along Rustic Avenue, a cold blue flicker spaced at even intervals, like isolated members of the same species, each shivering in its cage of frosted glass.
Harlan taps his boots on the asphalt and looks over his guitar case at Rik. "Sarah's gonna be there tonight," he says. Rik nods, disinterested. "Cool," he submits. Rik's hair has been sprayed, gelled, and otherwise stiffened into a pseudo-mohawk for the evening. "Pseudo-" because the sides are not shaved, and in moments of familial tenderness he can still opt for a simple parted-down-the-middle thing, becoming the fine young boy his father never had. Rik is thin, too thin, his long limbs stretching in skeletal grace, his pale skin drawn taut and canvassed across his cheekbones, his dark eyes shining like black glass within their deep sockets. Harlan is jealous, as he has always been of Rik, throughout high school and after. He tosses his own hair away from his face, adjusts his denim jacket, pulls a cigarette from the inside pocket.
Todd Slatsky, drummer for Bellport's own rock-and-roll phenomenon, the Dayglow Crazies, arranges his basement for tonight's festivities. He dangles Christmas lights in wide arcs from the tarnished plumbing, their pale glow deadened by the cool, damp cellar air, casting defeated shadows against the splitting concrete walls. Tonight Todd has conceived of an additional performance element. He is planning to show old home-movie footage that he found stashed in the attic beside his dad's neglected super-8 projector. He adjusts angles, aims the beam for the wall behind the band, threads a reel of film through the feeder. He brushes his brown curls from his face: Roll cameras! Action!
Inside the house, Rik's parents are fighting. The words are muffled, but Harlan and Rik can make most of it out. "C'mon, babe," Tony Giannati is shouting, incredulous, "you've gotta admit that was a stupid idea!" Susan Giannati, birthname Susan Schittstein ("No shit," Rik always laughs), fires back: "I just thought we could go for a weekend, Tony, that's all." "Oh great!" Tony agrees. "Great! We'll drive two-hundred miles each way just to spend the weekend! Honest, babe, I just don't know what you were thinking!" Rik turns to Harlan and grimaces. "I can't figure out why the fuck they got married." Harlan nods--it's the same deal he's stuck with. "Parents," he smirks. "Can't live with 'em, can't hack 'em to pieces in their sleep without power tools." Rik snorts. Darkness is settling in, getting comfortable, draining the color from the surrounding earth, from the half-acre plots that systematize this and most every housing development. Suburban geometry. Harlan wonders aloud: "Where the fuck is Scott?"
In East Patchogue, Sarah DeRosa is already dressed for the evening, in time-honored black and blue. She wears her U2 concert T from the most recent tour, torn and faded jeans, a denim jacket, her leather boots. They make her look taller. She thinks of Harlan as she applies hairspray, and just a feather-touch of eyeshadow. They've been hanging out a lot lately, and he's really cool, but maybe they're just friends? Yes, probably that's all—Harlan often tells her about other girls, girls he's attracted to, girls he'd like to sleep with. That's how he says it: "Sleep with." Sarah likes this, the simplest expression for it, excerpted from the dictionary of adulthood. "Fuck," on the other hand, pierces like an ice pick, its consonants charged with thrust and malice. In the kitchen, her stepdad Lenny is on the telephone. His bare feet whisper across the linoleum. He's saying, "I don't care if you know him or not. I told you, I handpick who I'm gonna deal with!" She hears her mother beside him, offering wisdom in her throaty voice: "Don't get fucked by this guy, Lenny! He'll bamboozle you right onto the balls of your ass!" Sarah hums a melody softly to herself, a Dayglow Crazies original entitled "Bad Movie."
In the film (Kodachrome, circa 1977), Todd and his folks are at Smithpoint Beach, and he is seven years old. His mom and dad take turns holding the camera, while Todd expands on a row of malformed sandcastles. His mother is smiling. Her teeth are perfect squares of marble. And it occurs to Todd, sitting there in the haze of Christmas lights, that he hasn't thought of her in a long time. "Fucking bitch," he mutters, killing the power. He pushes his brown curls away from his face, pulls his black T-shirt off to clean the smudges from the projector's lens. Upstairs, he hears his father's footsteps as he paces from kitchen to den, to kitchen, to den. His old man doesn't mind the party, so long as it stays downstairs. Fact is, his old man doesn't say much at all. The tremors from overhead rattle the basement ceiling; asbestos crumbles and flakes from the exposed beams like eczema.
Harlan lights his cigarette, inhales deeply. Rik doesn't smoke, so Harlan's got him beat there, at least. "So would you go out with her?" Harlan asks. "Who?" Rik clarifies, "Sarah?" Harlan nods, sucking at his Marlboro. The smoke ascends through the dead November air, a flickering silver and blue stream stretching for the phosphorescent streetlamps, dissipating like hope. Rik shrugs, thinks it over. "Sure. Why not? She's cool." He kicks a stone into the street. He is jealous of Harlan, of all the girls who like him, of his band and the way people fawn over them. Personally, he thinks they suck, but nobody else seems to notice. Or if they notice, they don't seem to mind. Or if they mind, they don't seem to complain. Or if they complain, they do so stealthily. In the distance, a mechanical whine suggests itself, incipient but rising excitedly, unrestrained, until finally it cries like something disemboweled through the Sid Farber Estates. "Sounds like Scott's here," Rik smiles. Sure enough, a pair of headlights come fishtailing around the corner, the black Volkswagen Bug charging their soft bodies, Scott's head decorated in liberty spikes, silhouetted in the windshield like a medieval weapon.
Sarah curls into bed with her dog, Speck, to await her ride to the party. Her room is the smallest in the house, a ranch-style rectangle known lovingly as the Jester. You see, this is Patchogue, and a different set of housing developments reigns here: there is the two-family split-level Duke, the wedge-shaped balcony-laden Earl, the mammoth four-bedroom Prince. She stares out her window, into the neighborhood, where there are other windows blazing against the cobalt dusk. She misses her dad, her real dad. He lives up in Westchester. She could move there anytime, he'd love it, but all her friends are here. And Harlan is here. She knows it's ridiculous, there's nothing between them. But still. Fleetwood Mac spins on her turntable, her favorite song, and impulsively she grabs a pencil from her dresser and scrawls the lyrics above her bed:
She wants to hug Harlan. That's all, really, just to hug him.
Todd has purchased four cases of Meister Brau (known derisively as "Mister Brew") for this event. Also, a bottle of Wild Turkey, private stock for the band. He is still shirtless in the musty air. Cellar-grit coats his damp flesh, creates a fragile exoskeleton. Above and to his left, laughter seeps into the basement, and then the heavy iron door opens upward and the first arrivals make their descent. Three girls, an auspicious omen. Todd spins the cap from the Wild Turkey, takes a swallow of the amber poison, then moves to greet his guests. "Hey," he says, although he can't see their faces yet, only legs and feet, boots and stockings. "Welcome to chez-moi. " "Oh please, Todd," a voice says, "we've only been here, like, a thousand times." All three giggle and reveal themselves in the jaundiced lighting.
"What took you so long?" Harlan asks, cramped in the tiny backseat, his guitar case resting across his lap. Scott grimaces: "Me and Renee had this big fight." "Uh-oh," Rik says, "trouble in paradise." Harlan is more sympathetic; after all, at nineteen he's still a virgin. "What happened?" he asks. "Well, I told you about the car, right, how I wanted to saw the roof off and all that shit?" Harlan and Rik both nod and grunt; they've been waiting for the Bug's transformation for months, expecting it even, their faith in Scott's lunacy complete and well-justified. "Well," Scott continues, "I wanted to use her dad's chainsaw, I was gonna do it this weekend, and she trips out on me. Like I'm gonna break the fucking chainsaw or something. Like I've never used a fucking chainsaw before! And she's the one who's been begging me to do it, too. I mean, can you explain that? Can you?" Alas, Harlan cannot. Rik shrugs, his hair scraping across the car's ceiling like an industrial broom. They hit Station Road running and head south, toward Bellport, toward scrub pines, toward the bay, toward Todd's, where there are possibilities, if nothing else.
Mary Bass looks Todd up and down, his chest and arms beautifully sculpted, a benefit all percussionists must reap. Claudia Thompson (whose father, incidentally, has been fucking some twenty-five-year-old) asks, "Are we the first ones?" Todd grins: "Oh yeah, didn't you hear? I had to cancel the party. So I guess it's just the four of us tonight." Kristen "James T." Kirk, a tall, lanky, dark-haired girl who can absorb a shot of vodka through her eye, whinnies: "Yeah, right. Don't you wish!" Mary touches Todd's arm, squeezes his bicep, piques his interest. "How about a beer?" she suggests. "Oh, yeah, help yourselves, they're in the can." Todd points her for the corner of the room while nervous good humor frolics. James T. talks about her trip to the Smithaven Mall that afternoon, where they now have living mannequins: "Yeah, for real! They, like, just stand there!" Todd watches Mary, admires her long strawberry hair, and the curve above her hips where the fesh is exposed, her red velvet blouse not quite covering the distance to her ribbed black skirt. "Hey," Claudia asks, "what's the projector for?"
Sarah plays on her bed with Speck. "You're so ugly!" she tells him. "You're so ugly I could throw up," she coos. Speck is a hideous beast, his white coat streaked with coarse, orange patches that gather about his face like rusted steel wool, but he has a good heart. He kisses Sarah mercilessly, as if to prove something. In the kitchen, Lenny's voice juggles two conversations, one via telephone ("Richie, you're not listening. I can't just let strangers in here! I don't . . . no, I don't care . . . yeah, but I don't know him!"), the other with his wife: "Nettle, wouldya shut up already!" Outside, a pair of headlights arc into the driveway. Sarah grabs her coat and marches through the hall, pausing at the front door to shout, "See you guys later!" Which obliges Lenny to a third conversation: "Where the fuck are you going now?" he inquires of her, holding the mouthpiece at bay.
Harlan sits dazed and alone in the back of the Bug while insidious Long Island streaks by. In the distance, the Brookhaven Landfill, the highest point on Long Island, looms, a black parabola looping perfectly from the flat, colorless expanse. Harlan is thinking of music. That afternoon he'd read an interview with virtuoso guitarist Joe Satrianni, one of his idols. Satch had talked about the way guitar lifts him from his body, how in the quest for true expression the musician actually drops out of the equation, and only the sound remains. More than anything, Harlan wants this rhetoric to come alive; he tries to absorb the jargon into his own fragile, shifting belief system. But the thing is, it's not really like that. It's bullshit, like everything else is bullshit. Out-of-the-body experience? He can barely play without watching the fretboard! His hands fumble across the rosewood, the wrong tools for the wrong job, like mallets used by an accountant to perform brain surgery.
Mary Bass knows she is being watched. She calculates her movements, reaching into the aluminum beer bucket with long, elegant gestures. Harlan will be there soon. She has lived and relived that moment a thousand times, her naked body supine and surrendered, stretched flat, Harlan poised above her, shivering. And then his entire family coming in that way, standing in the den's open arch like a living photograph, just watching, just watching, for God's sake! It seems so strange, so unlikely, that any of it could ever have happened, and yet the memory is etched into her like a vaccination scar. They couldn't be together after that, they just couldn't. She distributes beer as Todd continues to explain: "So I figured, 'What the fuck, think I'll have me a little picture show.' They're just home movies. I haven't even watched 'em yet." He shrugs: "I dunno, whadda you guys think?" Mary chimes in: "I think it's a really cool idea," she smiles.
Excerpted from L.I.E. by David Hollander. Copyright © 2000 by David Hollander. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.