It wasn’t a cult, Alice corrected herself, still. Chris hated when you called it a cult. Alice, he said, looking past her shoulder as he did whenever he wanted to demonstrate his intellectual superiority, Alice, it’s not even really a religion.
All right, it’s not a religion. What is it?
It’s just knowledge about the world.
Whose world, she asked. Yours or mine?
Chris Barber came from La Jolla, Calif., a town Alice visited once, with him. She stayed three days and practically all she remembers are rose bushes and a two-lane road curving out of sight, descending steeply into evergreens. She remembers being unable to reconcile that one scene with what she knew about him: rosebushes! A white stucco house overhung with pines! A dog, a scotty with rheumy eyes, which licked Alice’s suitcase in greeting. Chris explained that the dog was so old it could no longer tell the difference between people and things. Everything smelled, he guessed, and when you’d sniffed enough everything smelled the same. He didn’t see that his father was doing the dog a favor by letting it live on in that state. That was Chris. Not rose but thorn.
When they met he was kneeling outside a convenience store on Shattuck, offering coins from foreign countries to a panhandler. This is a dirham, he said, holding up a copper disc with a hole punched in its center. It’s from Morocco. It’s worth about half a cent. You want it?
The panhandler shook his head.
This is one hundred Alicenian lire. It’s from Alicenia. I don’t know what it’s worth because you aren’t allowed to change Alicenian lire. You take it, he said, and dropped the coin in the panhandler’s cup.
Alice watched, horrified. This is ten pfennigs, he said. There are a hundred pfennigs in a schilling, but a schilling isn’t worth anything because no one uses it any more. Take it, it’s from Austria.
The panhandler took the coin and turned it over in his palm. Austria, Chris said. That’s a country in Europe. It’s near Switzerland.
I know where fucking Austria is, said the man. He put the coin in his pocket. Thanks.
That’s OK. I’ve got lots of them.
When Chris stood up Alice was waiting. That was disgusting, she said. If you’re going to give him money at least you should give him money he can spend.
Who says he can’t spend it? Chris said. For all you know he’s going to Austria next week. He popped his gum. A kid all dressed in black, skinny as a matchbook, green canvas knapsack covered with inscriptions from which the archaeologists of the future would be able to learn about the alternative youth culture of the late twentieth century.
You fucking know he isn’t going to Austria, Alice said.
That’s true, said Chris. I can see the future. You want me to tell your fortune?
That was him: adept of a conversational judo that left your thought on its back and out of breath. Cross my palm with silver, he said. He gave Alice a few coins. She didn’t want to hear what he thought of her future, but she couldn’t keep the oboles and drachmas and whatever, wouldn’t have any use for them anyway. She laid out five strange coins in his outstretched hand. With the last one he took her fingers and held them. Let’s see, he said, and closed his eyes. I see great difficulties for you. Great troubles ahead. He bit his lip. I see you seated in a room with a strange man, drinking, ummm… tea. All around you is danger, but if you trust this man he will keep you safe.
Thanks. Alice pulled her hand away. What kind of a fortune was that?
It’s just what I saw, said Chris. Where are you going?
To look for my strange man.
I’m pretty strange, said Chris.
So began the story of Chris and Alice. Chris and Alice, sitting in a tree, discussing, discussing, endlessly, whether there was any point in changing the world or whether they ought to enjoy its ruinward slide. Chris of course took the latter view so Alice took the former, although changing the world wasn’t something that had interested her before. She found herself saying things that she blushes to think of now because they were so, so Berkeley, like, OK, the system is fucked, but not the idea of systems, you know?
Chris lolled on his back, eyes half closed, listening with one ear while with the other he tracked the chanting singers, all his favorite singers chanted, whose muses sang in them of going down, down, together and alone, alone. Theirs was not a romance; it was a disagreement. It convened over lunch at the Free Speech Café and spoke freely: Chris: I don’t even believe in anarchy, you know? People are selfish and shortsighted. Without government you’d have… Alice: High school. Chris: OK, high school. Alice: So government is good. Chris: No, that’s high school too, you know? Like, the administration.
Their disagreement lolled on the lawn between the library and the life sciences; it waved a white flag, a t shirt actually, at the frisbee players and cried, Cease your fire! We surrender! It met after dark and sneaked into the lax bars on Bancroft, where it complained that the American consciousness had been so thoroughly co-opted by corporate media that the revolution, if it came, would only be televised; and it dreamed of a socialist Attila, Canadian perhaps, who would rise up with a horde of illiterates and scourge the land until it was possible to imagine again. Of course, it pointed out, the real Attila was not a socialist and his heir wouldn’t be any better.
Their disagreement danced and danced, and danced, and danced, and danced. Eventually, lying on its side on the bank of a stream which hadn’t seen a drop of water since the previous winter, it let an arm roll as if by chance onto Alice’s shoulders, and, the next thing she knew, Chris was biting her ear, not nibbling, biting, as though to get at her blood. Alice: What are you doing? Chris: Mm. Alice: Wait. Chris: What? Alice: I’m lying on a piece of glass. Chris: A rock, actually. Then nothing more to argue about.
The world was changing; they were changing the world. They moved together into an apartment on Walnut Street and at night they walked past the experimental greenhouses and admired the new varieties of plant the university was dreaming up. They invited friends to dinner and served no food, because, they said, all satisfaction was illusion; they drank vermouth and went out for pizza. They were generous and magnificent in their contempt. They walked backwards in an Easter parade, holding an upside-down cross, until they were detained by the police for ‘public nuisance,’ which was, Chris said, only fair; if the devil wasn’t a nuisance then He was doing something wrong.
They drove to Monterey and took pictures of people looking at marine life in the aquarium; they experimented with walking barefoot and were fined by a park ranger for making a fire without a permit, which was, Chris said, only fair, because if the law regulated anything it should regulate fire, the anarchic principle on which all human happiness was built.
They tried psilocybin and called each other’s mothers and told them they were going to be fine no matter what happened. Chris put his arm on Alice’s shoulder and said, I think I’ll love you forever, and Alice, moved also by the drug, said, what are those things in your hair?
She believed him, though, or at least she could imagine this going on forever, or at least she couldn’t imagine anything else, or at least whenever she imagined anything else it was not as good as this, this changing of the world not by organization but by substitution, by taking one ordinary thing away and leaving another, fantastic, in its place.
Two years after graduation, still on Walnut Street, playing host to an increasingly strange group of people, undergraduates who got there after Alice left and permastudents whom prolonged immersion in a sea of drugs had worn into weird shapes, they were still talking about the future as though it were something that hadn’t happened yet. They were going to move to San Francisco; they were going to work for their passage on a coastal vessel down to Panama, and up to New York. They were going to start an animal shelter, and started it, briefly, until the neighbors objected; then they were going to build their own house out in Davis, where there weren’t so many neighbors, but this plan too was scuttled when Chris decided that he needed to be near people, in case he wanted to start his band. Although he played no instrument, and could not sing, Chris dreamed of being on stage—as a conductor, he said; how many bands had conductors? He would wave a baton and the electric guitar would play. Wave: drums; wave: the bass. He stood on the coffee table, jabbing a pencil at the stereo, bobbing his head and jerking his hand upward as if to coax more life out of the recording.
In retrospect those years seem sad, but from one day to the next Alice enjoyed happiness such as she had not known before, and has not known since. She worked in a French restaurant on Telegraph and defaulted on her student loans to protest the cost of higher education. In the morning she walked in the hills with a taupe-coated mutt named Treat who had fled a bad situation and ended up in their kitchen the way everyone else did. She watched the sun play on the top of the fog and the container ships pulling into Oakland. She felt so still, some days, it was as though she’d become a geological formation, a little outcropping that had stood there since the Bay was a prairie and the white city opposite not even a dream. She descended by winding ways to buy olive-rosemary ciabatta and vegetables whose roots trailed clots of real dirt. That was happiness, or close enough, and it lasted until the night Chris stopped breathing.
It was a club so close to the Oakland shipyard you were afraid to light up on account of the fumes in the air. The club had been a warehouse for printing equipment until the manufacturer was driven out of business by the invention of the laser printer, the desktop publishing suite, the decomposition of the letter into a thousand thousand dots, like spores, which could be blown anywhere in the world. All that remained of the old presses were dark spots on the floor, which would become objects of increasing interest for the partygoers as the night wore on. Also a hoist on a metal track overhead, from which the DJ booth was suspended. Chris and Alice had taken drugs, but not those drugs: an industrial chemist named Ray whom Chris knew from his Japanese archery class had given them four capsules of a substance so new it wasn’t even illegal yet, a drug which he advised them to think of as “pure fun.” Not speedy, no visuals, no melting into the Cosmic All, the Pure Fun was supposed to leave everything the way it was, but give you a perspective on it whereby it seemed much better.
Because that sounded like such a magical effect, and because their supply of Fun was not guaranteed, Chris and Alice saved the capsules for a special occasion. But as the months passed, and Alice’s birthday came and went—she was twenty-four—and Christmas and New Year’s, Alice realized that the only special thing about these occasions was how little they stood out from the mass of her days, and how little she wanted them to stand out. She suggested they take the Fun this evening when she was getting dressed. They swallowed the capsules right before they got out of the car, unsure how long it would take to kick in. At midnight Alice felt nothing. A warm-up DJ spun tales of freedom and happiness and women murmuring, get closer to me, which was scarcely conceivable under the circumstances. Even in the chill room, the old office, you could barely sit down, and when you did the hollow-chested old men and the jocks still in thrall to alcohol took notice of you. Alice was about to suggest that they leave, because even God Himself would be hard pressed to show this crowd a good time, when something shifted in her mind, like the wheel of an odometer returning to zero.
My god, Chris. She grabbed his arm. These people are great.
Aren’t they? Chris beamed at her, and she wondered how long he had been feeling it without saying anything. The funny thing was, she still had no desire to speak to the business majors with power-bead necklaces straining at their too thick necks. She had not lost sight of their shortcomings, or the way they looked at her: black girl with a white boy. She did not like them; she would prefer not to know them; they were great only in the sense that they were human, and humans were great, at least, compared to the alternatives.
This is the life, she said.
When did she notice that Chris was not breathing? Hard to say. Her attention played over the crowd like a spotlight in darkness, picking out a face, the arc of a hand, a feather headdress, a streak of silver fabric. All these distinctive human features. When she looked at Chris he was stiff and the veins in his neck throbbed.
Hey, she said. Hey! She shook his arm. His muscles were rigid, his hands clenched together. Chris! Wake up, she said, but his eyes were open.
In high school Alice had taken a lifesaving class, which involved thumping the chest of a dummy and putting your mouth—yuck—to its rubber mouth. But she couldn’t reach Chris’s mouth; he was too tall and he wouldn’t bend forward. His heart was beating so there was no point in hitting his chest. So Alice punched him in the stomach.
Whoof, Chris said. What did you do that for?
You weren’t breathing.
You scared me.
Are you all right?
Chris grinned. I’m going to live forever. You know that.
They went out to dance, even though there was still no room and the Fun was beginning to wear off. Alice was happy to be dancing, though, because it meant she didn’t have to tell Chris what she was thinking, which she would have done otherwise; there was enough Fun left in her blood for that. When she saw that he wasn’t breathing, and thought he was going to die, she became aware that everyone else in the room would die also, and that Chris’s death would be no more special than any of theirs, and no more worth worrying about. When they got home the next morning, she put the remaining capsules of Fun in the garbage disposal and ground them up, along with some eggshells that they weren’t supposed to compost on account of the feral cats who would be attracted by the smell.
That was it: his ‘death experience,’ as he referred to it later. Near death, Alice corrected him. Your heart was beating.
Yeah, but I was already dead, Chris said.
He said he’d crossed over to the Other Side, where the strangest thing was that he could still see himself living. And I was, like, shouting, Hey, asshole, you’re dead!
It gave me a new perspective on things, you know?
Chris talked about how important it was not to distance yourself from reality. He thought that they should give up television. We’ve got to concentrate on the things that are really here, he said.
TV’s really here, Alice said, I mean, as much as anything else.
When it was gone, though, she didn’t miss it, or if she did she watched with a friend from the bookstore. One night she came home and found Chris asleep on the sofa, a book called Me and My Shadow open on his chest. She kissed him on the mouth and he woke up.
Don’t, he said.
We think about the body too much. We should think about something else.
Where were you?
At David’s. Watching television.
Just you and David?
Are you jealous?
What’s that book? She took it from his hands. “A Spiritual Guide for Dying and Beyond. Chapter Four. Can You Trust Your Guide?”
Chris, this is so goth. Listen: “Not all the shades who wait on that riverbank want us to cross to the other side.” It’s so black and depressing.
Give it back.
I love your black and depressing phase, she said, and kissed him again.
That night he didn’t want to make love, but when Alice was asleep he pressed himself up behind her and rubbed his cock against her inert body, as though he was feeling for what was dead in her, for what had already ceased to respond. It freaked Alice out and she pushed him away. What’s going on? she asked.
I love you, Chris said.
The next morning he admitted that he’d been to a meeting—a few meetings—at the Reorganized Church of Philips in Alameda.
You’re joking. The Floaters?
They had arrived in Alice’s life months ago, in the form of a leaflet handed to her by a smiling individual outside the Wells Fargo on University, a leaflet with a photograph of an old gentleman in an armchair, who looks at you, the reader, as though you were one of those expensive toys for old people sold through the mail, a toothbrush warmer or a backscratcher covered in sharkskin. Under the photograph, the words, WE ARE ALL GOING UP. The interior of the pamphlet told her that only ignorance and impure feelings were keeping her from the total personal satisfaction which was her birthright. If she was willing to accept the simple rules communicated to mankind by our benevolent alien managers (managers?), she would soon free herself from all earthly cares, and she’d know it because she would achieve PERSONAL FLIGHT, which, did they really mean that, yes, meant her feet would rise off the ground and she would fly, or Float, up into the air. There followed the story of the Reorganized Society of Philips which was, the pamphlet told her, not a new religion; the Society was founded in the mid-19th century and was therefore every bit as old as the Latter-Day Saints “or other established American religions,” whichever those were. Verso, a rubber stamp communicated the address of the Third Bay Area Wing, in Alameda. Alice took the leaflet home because she thought it was funny; she showed it to Chris and he thought it was funny, too. She thought.
Now Chris was talking about the chains of the earth and minimizing his gravity load. Alice could live with it. He ate a lot of fish because it had the lowest concentration of earth energy, and she could live with that, too. And with the amino acids he poured on his food, because they sped up his neurotransmitters, he said, although Alice asked David at the bookstore whether amino acids could do anything like that and the answer was almost certainly no. And with the long silence after meals when he had to channel his food energy upward, and the diary he kept of things that tied him to the ground, which he was supposed to cross off one by one as he overcame them.
Am I in there? she asked. Have you crossed me off yet?
It’s not really about people, Chris said. It’s about ways of thinking.
She looked in the diary one afternoon when Chris was out. Item 1, “Afraid that my father won’t understand what I’m doing,” had been crossed off. Item 2 was Christine, Chris’s stepmother. Crossed off. Alice’s name didn’t appear anywhere, although Item 15, “People who love me because they want me to be dependent on them,” not crossed off, might have been a warning.
In other ways the transformation was for the better. Chris had stopped drinking, because it was an illusion, he said, the lift you got from alcohol. He had stopped smoking because he wanted to breathe, really to breathe. And he was getting involved with computer-generated special effects: apparently that was something a lot of Floaters did. He bought a new desktop and stayed up until two, three in the morning, drawing wire-frame aliens and covering them with fantastic skins. He talked about getting a job at Industrial Light and Magic, or moving to LA to do freelance work for television.
Los Angeles, yuck, Alice said.
My dad would love it if we lived down there.
What do you mean, if we lived?
You wouldn’t come with me?
And anyway, I thought you didn’t care about making your dad happy.
Of course I care. Chris grinned. We could live on the beach, wake up to the sound of the ocean.
In your dreams.
Don’t be so heavy, Alice. Heavy being the Floaters’ way of saying negative.
And sure enough, at the end of the month he asked Alice whether he didn’t owe her some rent? Why didn’t he take care of the rent for a few months, to even things up? Because he had a job now, modeling the collapse of various Bay Area landmarks for a video artist in Emeryville. Actually he’d had the job for weeks, but he hadn’t wanted to tell Alice about it until he was certain it would work out. He had become quiet, Chris, cool and quiet like moving water. He didn’t mention Los Angeles again, or the hypothetical house on the hypothetical beach. A tacit understanding had grown up between him and Alice that if the future held something other than these quiet days, then it would not be for both of them together.
Treat the taupe-coated dog disappeared—tired of fish scraps, Alice thought. Secretly she worried that it had been injured, and was waiting for one of them to come and rescue it. She looked for it all over Berkeley, in vain. Whenever she heard a dog barking in the middle of the night she ran to the window, convinced that it was their dog; but there was never any dog to be seen. Must be a ghost, Chris said. We’re surrounded by spirits, and not just the spirits of the dead. Alice was not reassured.
Alice played darts at the Albatross with people from the bookstore. When she came home, Chris was standing on tiptoes in the middle of the living room, his eyes closed. On his monitor, the Transamerica Building crumbled over and over again.
He breathed out. What?
Remember when you were going to be a conductor?
I had a lot of crazy ideas. Did you have fun tonight?
Sure. I wish you had come, though.
Chris took her hands. Alice, do you want to live with me?
I am living with you.
Do you want to live with me forever?
Oh god, Chris. Are you going to ask me to marry you?
Chris looked past her shoulder at the screen. Not exactly. I want you to join the church.
She wouldn't join the church—her mother, those angels, bad memories—but she wouldn’t leave him, either. What they had was good, not perfect but good, definitely better than what her mother had in Bakersfield with her unright Reverend. Chris hadn’t asked Alice to pay rent in four months; the growing collection of gray boxes and small green lights around his work table suggested that business was going well. He was sober; he cooked; he no longer brought the bottle of amino acids when they went out for sushi. Never mind that they had changed the Pacific Film Archive calendar on the refrigerator twice since the last time they had sex; never mind that Alice cried into her Guiness at the Albatross, and found David the sous-chef’s gagworthy advances increasingly hard to rebuff. She was often happy, and what was happiness if it couldn’t be mixed from time to time with something else? Besides, there were still moments of the old delirium, as when Chris threw away his leather jacket and Alice’s steel-toed boots.
Leather is very heavy, he said, it’s at the end of a chain of earth energies.
But my boots…
Let them go, he said. Have you tried walking barefoot?
One morning Alice woke up and he’d made waffles, which filled their apartment with the smell of vanilla. These are great, she said, her mouth full. What’s going on?
It’s International Boot Day, Chris said.
They dressed up, Alice in a silver skirt and Chris in a leopard-print rayon shirt, and descended on the El Cerrito Plaza in the car Chris’s parents had bought him for graduation. Alice tried on knee-high boots in red vinyl, low black canvas boots, boots with clear plastic heels in which plastic goldfish appeared to swim. Chris tried on gold lamé boots with imitation ostrich trim and mock-cowboy boots in imitation snakeskin, loved both, bought both, and wore one of each through the halls of the Plaza, singing, these boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.
Hold on, Alice told herself, we’re going to come through to the other side of this, and we’ll both be alive again.
The job with the video artist ended, but that was all right because Chris needed time to think. He wrote to his father to tell him to get rid of all his childhood things. He was starting a new life, he said, and he didn’t want any baggage; and besides think of all the space it was taking up. I just want everyone to be free, the letter ended. Love Chris.
His stepmother called while he was at a meeting. She wanted to know if he was taking drugs and if so whether it was Alice’s fault.
Alice told her no, no drugs, unless you count amino acids? But he’s involved with a cult.
Chris? He’s not even religious, and if he was he’d be Jewish, what kind of cult?
Oh, no, that’s only for movie people.
I don’t know, Alice said, I try not to know anything about them.
Quite the girlfriend, said Christine, as though now it was Alice’s fault for not joining the cult, too.
Quite the parent, Alice said.
Christine hissed. Tell him to call us, she said. We don’t know what he wants for his birthday.
Chris came home with an armload of white flowers. You’re never going to believe it, he said.
I’ve been promoted!
I thought you were freelancing?
At the church, stupid. I’m Level Two now. The official title is Acolyte. I’ll be a full-on Floater before I’m thirty.
Gosh, Alice said.
You could at least pretend to be excited.
So Alice held him, and pretended.
Chris’s parents invited them to La Jolla for the weekend. They lived in a condo at the end of a cul-de-sac, wait a sec, where are the rose bushes, where are the evergreens? All they’ve got is a dry lawn and a covered parking area. And the rheumy dog. Mr. and Mrs. Barber were all smiles. How good it was to meet Alice, they’d wanted to meet her forever, how long had she and Chris been going out? Gosh, what a long time. How was the trip? Did they need anything? Chris and Alice made love on Chris’s bed while his father mowed the lawn. The next day was Chris’s birthday. We can do anything you want, Mr. Barber said. What would you like to do? They went to a movie, about humans visiting another planet, and how all the aliens freak out and start worshipping them, then more humans arrive, the aliens wise up, very funny. Chris came out raving about the special effect. Can you believe those eyes? he said. George Katz is like the only person on the planet who could have done those eyes.
Who’s George Katz? his father asked.
A special effects man, Chris said. He nudged Alice’s side. Floater, he whispered.
For dinner they went to his childhood favorite restaurant, the Lobster Barn, a place where the waitress ties a plastic bib around your neck and looks upset if you tie it yourself. They had cocktails, then a bottle of wine, then they had cake and ice cream and Mr. Barber insisted that the youth, he called them that, the youth, split a bottle of pink champagne, which Alice couldn’t stand, but when in Rome, she figured. Chris was drunk, no surprise, he’d been dry for more than a year. Dad, I’m thinking of moving back your way, he said.
Is that so, Chris?
I miss you, Chris said. I miss both of you, Christine.
How sweet, Chris. But aren’t you settled up there?
We were talking about moving, Chris said. The two of us. To a house on the beach…
He fell asleep in the car on the way home, his head on Alice’s shoulder. How sweet. She couldn’t wait to get him home, to unwrap him like a gift. But they didn’t go home. The Barber family stopped at Pillow Point, a Home on a winding two-lane road that plunged into evergreens. Thick-armed men lifted Chris out of the car, deposited him in a wheelchair, and trundled him down a gravel path between rose bushes, to a white stucco bungalow where other hands pulled him into their yellow light. It was the wheelchair that really shocked Alice at the time: as if Chris were an invalid.
He can walk, Alice said, more than a little drunk herself. God damn it, let him walk!
Please be quiet, Mr. Barber said.
He’s been promoted, he’s Level Two. He can practically fly!
She believed it then as she hadn’t before, and long afterward, when she thought of him, she imagined his skinny body rising out of the wheelchair, pinwheeling over the heads of the baffled attendants, rising, turning, up into the rosy La Jolla night and whatever was above that.
Mr. and Mrs. Barber dropped Alice off at the bus station, where she spent the night surveilled by a cop and three wolfish men with no bags, whom the city was sending north in order not to have a homeless problem. She planned to get off at the first stop and hitchhike back to town. She knew the name of the place where Chris was, and if she couldn’t see him, at least she could wait until he was released, and take him away before the Barbers made him into whatever awful ordinary thing they had in mind. But when the bus started it occurred to her that if she was going to do something, she would have done it long ago.
She fell asleep and when she woke up the bus was in a dusty furrow between two vast fields of artichokes. Then Livermore, then Pleasanton, then the backside of the Oakland hills. Alice walked home feeling so light it was a wonder the wind didn’t pick her up and carry her over the hills, tumble her into brown earth and plant her there. Two weeks later she quit her job at the restaurant. A month after that she was living in San Francisco, and working at a company that made Web browsers. It was supposed to be a prestige job, and if Alice didn’t notice any prestige accruing to herself, she didn’t mind. She was happy enough just writing manuals and working with problems she could understand and solve, even, occasionally.