Monday, November 20, 2006

Confidence Skulls and Incubi

They keep the classrooms locked, so we accumulate in the hall before class, sitting on the carpeted floor, looking over our anatomy cards, chatting about what we did last night.

Kinesiology midterm, already. I drop my pack and settle to the floor. "Dale, here," says Clint, and he tosses me something about the size of a marble. "It's a confidence skull. It's a Buddhist thing." He's brought one for everyone. A carved wooden skull, sans mandible. Tests are not Clint's favorite thing. He's been having nightmares, he tells us, about this midterm.

He's shaved his head, except for an odd forelock. "Like a kewpie doll!" exclaims Lindsey, accurately.

I roll the skull between my fingers, surprised at how strong a gratitude I feel. I wonder what sort of "Buddhist thing" it is, but I doubt there's any information to be gleaned by asking. I'm not nervous about the test. My gratitude is for being included.

You would think it would be the massage class that would be tight, since we lay hands on each other all the time, but it's the kinesiology class that's become our common hearth.

"How old are you, Dale?" asks George, asking as if to settle a bet. "Forty-eight," I answer. Speculation ensues about the age of our instructor, a lithe and beautiful woman past her youth. Guesses range from mid-thirties to mid-forties. She has at least one teenager, we know.

And here she is, looking uncharacteristically worn.

"Where are our cupcakes?" asks Mae. "On my kitchen counter," says our teacher wearily, as she unlocks the door. Meaning she forgot them, I suppose. She has a discipline problem to deal with at home, she says, so she won't be joining us after the test. A chorus of genuine regret. "No cupcakes?" says Mae, mournfully.

We file into the classroom, get settled, several of us fondling our little skulls. Mae has torn off a wisp of her hair and is threading it through hers, producing a surprisingly gruesome effect. Andrea's already threaded hers through a fine chain around her neck. Lindsey springs up a moment later. "I just have to!" she says, and leans over to rub the fuzz of Clint's head. "So soft!"

Just eight of us, now. (Three people have dropped the class, including, alas, the Girl with the Magic Hands.) So we find a partner, and repair to the tables, with the curtains drawn so they're open just in front -- we can't see each other, but the teacher can see all of us. There's a lot of waiting around, during a palp test, and we're not allowed to speak. We sit on the tables and kick our feet, or pace around, as the instructor moves down the line, having one person in turn name and palpate the origin and insertion of some muscle on his or her partner, and run it through its actions.

We can hear George, the other side of the curtain. "The latissimus dorsi originates at the posterior iliac crest, the thoracolumbar aponeurosis, the spinous processes of the last six thoracic vertebrae, and the posterior surfaces of the last three or four ribs," he says, authoritatively. I'm a little amused. George always talks himself down, and gives the impression that he expects to fail horribly, but he doesn't fool anyone anymore. He has it down cold. " runs under the arm here and inserts here, at the crest of the lesser tubercle of the humerus. Its actions are to extend the shoulder, adduct the shoulder" -- he'll be moving Clint's arm as he speaks -- "and..."

He stops: he's gone blank. Silence. Andrea and I exchange a glance. He finds his way again. "...and medially rotate the shoulder." Andrea pumps a fist in silent triumph, and we grin at each other.

Mae's too young to drink, so Andrea's reserved a lane at the bowling alley. The rest of us can drink there, fetching pitchers out of the bar, and we sit at a cafeteria table under glaring flourescent lights. Our lane won't be ready for a while. James, who is a movie buff, is talking about other films by the maker of Amelie, which fascinates Andrea and bores George. Mae has found other friends at the bowling alley and is dividing her time between us.

Clint asks me what music I listen to. I find this a difficult question to answer, and what I say is not particularly true; I say I listen to old stuff, Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin. Actually I listen to all kinds of stuff, whatever's on the radio, new stations or oldies stations. There's all kinds of wonderful music. I wonder why the question makes me so anxious. I guess because I no longer know what liking this music or that music is supposed to say about me. Wary, as ever, of being pigeon-holed. If I say Red Hot Chili Peppers or Sarah McLachlan, will I have branded myself as... something? I look at Clint's guileless face and find myself ashamed of my reticence and caution.

Cosmic bowling. The black light picks out the skulls on Clint's wristband and ring, and the white of his boxer shorts as he clownishly wiggles his hips before taking his three steps and bowling. How he can bowl with his pants riding so low is a mystery to me. He can't, very well. George leans over to me and murmurs, "I've never seen a grown man suck so bad at bowling."

A certain moroseness has been growing in George. There's just five of us left when we head into the karaoke bar -- all four men from kinesiology, and Andrea. We're all flirting lightly with Andrea. But for George possibly it's serious; it seems to have an edge to it.

Karaoke. Andrea does a creditable "Son of a Preacher Man." James, who reveals an unexpectedly commanding stage presence, does Metallica's "Sandman." I've never seen karaoke before and I'm delighted by it. It reminds me of blogging: singing for each other, all amateurs together, rather than being passive spectators of remote, professional artists; borrowing the taped instrumentals just as we borrow the professional-looking typesetting of html apps to make a show of being real writers.

"Back to never never land," James growls into the microphone, radiating sinister, and wholly feigned, malevolence. I glance at George's closed face with some uneasiness. Some are born to endless night, Blake whispers to me. I hope not.

But George is the exception. The rest of us are simply having a good time.

We shut the bar down. That strange moment arrives when ordinary lights come up, and tired waitstaff begin to wipe things down, and all the shabbiness of worn carpets and tattered upholstery is revealed, and a sudden quiet hangs in the stale air.

This is the time when the incubus usually settles heavily on my shoulders, whispering to me about the futility of my love and my perpetual isolation. But not tonight. It's absent. We say our good nights affectionately, and I drive carefully home, with nothing, nothing on my shoulders.

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