Big party tonight at the American’s. I wish we’d run into him earlier. We only have a few more weeks before we leave for the Great Barrier Reef.
While I dry my hair, Tracy reads aloud from the morning paper about Bill Clinton’s mythical childhood. A penniless have-not who never met his dad and grew up in a rural ghetto that’s actually called Hope.
“People are gonna eat that up. He’s everything we like to think is possible in America,” I say.
“So here’s a line for you.” Tracy reads a sidebar about Ross Perot. “ ‘If you see a snake, you kill it. You don’t appoint a committee on snakes.’ ”
“Sounds like something my mom would say.”
“Totally. What happened to your bangs?” Tracy asks.
“I torched them. The hair dryer here is total crap. John bought it before I moved in, which was so nice, but this”—I point at my scorched fringe—“is the best I can do, even with my new styling brush that cost like twenty bucks.” Oh for God’s sake, Kelly, who’s looking at you? I hear my mother ask.
“Put a little water on your bangs. I can smell the burn.”
On the train to the party, Tracy hands me her Zinc Pink, and I coat my lips.
Evan meets us at the station downtown. We glance at each other, sheepish about our party looks, me in mascara and lipstick, Evan in shoes and a belt. We make small talk as we follow Walker’s directions. When we get to the door, Tracy and Evan look to me to do the knocking. Standing in the hallway between them, I don’t know who we are or who I want us to be: three pals … a couple and their single buddy … best friends and some guy?
Walker throws open the door. “You made it!” he says to us, kissing both Tracy and me on the cheek and throwing out his hand for Evan to shake. “Good to see you, mate.” He says he thought we might not come, but we’ll be glad we did because this party is going off. He points Evan toward a keg and takes Tracy and me to the kitchen, where we drain a bottle of wine into giant orange stadium cups that Walker wants us to notice are from UVA.
“Hey,” Walker says to the guys in the kitchen, “these are the American girls I told you about.” We all shake hands, and everyone is happy to meet us. I glance across at Evan, who is filling his cup, and wonder if he’ll surprise me by getting hammered.
“Right, then, American Girl,” says an Aussie named Ian. “How do you like ’Stralia?”
I tell Ian I love his country, I can’t think of one thing wrong with his country, his country is like a giant resort—gorgeous and open late and geared toward adventure.
“I reckon nothing’s better than the States. Fan-bloody-tastic.” Ian takes the uncomplicated view of us. Half the people we meet think like Cultural Chernobyl Goatee Boy, and the other half see the United States as Xanadu. It’s nice being around that half, nice like when my old friend tells me that my mom’s the rudder.
Ian and I talk about nannying, and I keep it simple. I don’t tell him the Tanners’ sad story. It’s a party. We laugh about how hopeless I am, driving on the wrong side of the road, freaking Milly out in Darling Harbour, and then he says he’s been on the dole since he got out of uni. Talk about hopeless, I hear my mother say.
After an hour, someone puts on Depeche Mode and people start bobbing their heads and tapping their feet. Evan is across the room, talking seriously to a plain girl with very good posture. She suits him. Like Evan (and Milly and my mom), she hails from the part of the world where people are not looking to be noticed. It’s a place I haven’t chosen to spend much time.
Tracy taps me on the shoulder. “Cig?”
We duck outside and meet a new crowd, the smokers. Someone holds out an open pack, and we each take one and say, “Cheers,” like we’re locals. I’m glad Evan’s not out here; it’s insensitive to smoke in front of a person whose family was destroyed by cancer, even if it wasn’t lung cancer.
We end up staying outside a long time because Walker’s turned up to regale us all with adventure stories. He’s done everything—white-water canoeing, wind-surfing, zip-lining, hiking something called the Tarkine Rainforest Track in Tasmania. Walker is totally fearless, a Go For It guy. As he talks, Tracy and I make mental notes of the awesome things we need to do and the off-the-beaten-track places we need to hit.
Eventually, Evan leans out the door, reminding me that in some ways I’m already way off the beaten track.
“Oh, hey,” he says to me.
“Hey.” I move the ashtray and slide over so he has a place to be. His beer is almost full, and I wonder if he’s still on his first.
Folding Evan into his audience, Walker starts a new story, about parasailing. Someone interrupts and asks when he managed to do “all this incredible shit,” and he says, “Pretty much over the last year.”
“Dude, that’s a killer year,” someone says.
“Just trying to keep moving and see it all,” Walker says. “The best was black-water rafting in New Zealand. Incredible.”
Someone asks what black-water means.
“Rafting through caves—subterranean.” Someone whistles woo-ee. “Yeah. Never seen anything like it. The really rad thing is that once you get deep down in the tunnels, there are, like, thousands of glowworms clinging to the walls.”
I’d have gone for Walker if I’d met him last year at happy hour on Water Street in Baltimore. Me in my rayon skirt and pleather pumps, him in his JoS. A. Bank suit and genuine leather briefcase, telling me how he’s going to be an expat in Australia. Shit, I almost fell for him here, settling in at his feet as he rolled out his director’s cut of ripping yarns.
But then Evan came outside and stood next to me, and as I looked back and forth between him and Walker, thinking about what they’ve each seen and conquered these past twelve months, Walker started to look designed, like a fitness fanatic whose muscles have been carefully shaped in the gym, an expensive trainer guiding his every rep, where Evan is a foot soldier, made fit by a tour of service, no spotters, no mirrors. He’s done the night watch, carried a body, guided his unit back to civilian life.
What good is the stuff flashy Walker knows? Keep moving. See it all. Why? For the stories? How do they help anybody?
If I have only so much time to learn, I’m pulling my chair up to Evan and begging him to talk. His parents’ separation and divorce, his mum’s second marriage, her tumor, the treatment and side effects, the first time a doctor used the word terminal, deciding how to spend the time left, the first skipped dose, the mess of a body breaking down, the last words, the closing of her eyes, the relief, the fury, the hole. I need to know the things he knows. Everyone does.
Evan is a Person of Great Interest, of True Interest. My mother would have preferred him over Walker from word one.
On the ride home, I open the window because I smell like an ashtray, and I stare out at the yellow line marking the road’s shoulder until it blurs, mad at myself for ogling over Walker’s well-stamped passport and daredevil badges.
You think rafting through the dark is so gutsy, Walker, in your helmet and life preserver?
Try watching your mother die. Try looking after her father and her kids. Try family life.