Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie

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Thursday
Jan102008

THE PRELUDE

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—To absent friends, said Jack Samson, holding his fourth or fifth martini high into the air, like a flag or a torch or, more likely, a flag he was about to turn into a torch.

Ray lifted his glass along with the fifty or so others, savoring the moment of semi-respectful silence before the cacophony swirled back in, pooling around the TV set where Dick Clark, stiff and stricken, the World’s Oldest Teenager ground down at last like everyone else, did his best to ring in the new year for what was likely (always, always likely) the last year he would ever know. Staring at Clark’s momentarily muted mouth, the lips struggling to shape words, the words halting before the threshold before limping out into the air, Ray began to count them—the absent friends, not the words. He wondered how many he could name in the fuzzy echo chamber of his brain in the three minutes before the countdown brought the cacophony to its false pitch, like a rocket that lifts off only to tip and list and plunge in a long, awful, helpless arc back to the earth.

Someone was saying something in his ear, a voice approaching a squeal, and Jack was waving his drink-free hand as if trying to get Ray’s attention, but Ray stared at Dick Clark’s mouth, which had a beat, even if you couldn’t dance to it, and as Clark doggedly spoke, as the hopes for the future that were betrayed in their utterance, as all hopes must, stumbled into the studio air and transmitted themselves to millions of ears too abuzz with champagne or apathy to acknowledge them as anything more than candles in a cursed darkness, Ray counted them, he counted them all—the absent friends, not the hopes.

Vickie appeared at his elbow.

—Why so glum, chum?

—I was thinking the list of absent friends gets longer every year… and I’m wishing Billie wasn’t on it, said Ray.

Vickie nodded and peered into the depths of her bourbon and knocked it back, all in one gesture. She gave Ray a wincing look that devolved into a sad smirk.

—To present friends, she said, holding up her nearly empty glass. Only the lonely know, and only the living care.

—Kill ‘em with kindness, replied Ray with a smile. Billie’s motto felt odd on his lips, as if he was doing an impersonation. But only Billie was ever any good at impersonating Billie.

—This time next year, said Vickie, it will be… this time next year. She gave the punch line an exaggerated, tipsy slur that her raised eyebrow, penciled in as high and curved as the St. Louis Arch, instantly mocked.

—And on and on until the end of the end of time, said Ray over the growing din. They looked at each other as only two people who know each other too well can look. Present friends, thought Ray. We are present, always, only present, until we’re not.

Jack’s voice rose up on a wave of other voices, chanting the countdown now, the long, grinding, cycling prelude to a kiss, the year past, coming to its climax, eleven… twelve… ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… SIX… FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE.

Goodbye, thought Ray as he kissed Vickie, holding her too close and too tight, goodbye, as the happy riot burst, present, around him, and the prelude, helpless, began again.

It was still a hell of a party. Ray didn’t even get home until the tenth.

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