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Punk and Circumstance

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“Of course,” says Henry, pushing back his chair, “some people, me included, believe that punk is just the most recent manifestation of this, this spirit, this feeling, you know, that things aren’t right and that in fact things are so wrong that the only thing we can do is to say Fuck It, over and over again, really loud, until someone stops us.”
          --Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

1. Nick

“And now it is my pleasure to introduce our valedictorian, Norah Silverberg.”

I'm sitting with Norah's parents, who are still more strangers to me than anything else. According to Scott and Thom (who have now made “the Caroline run” a total of three times in the past month), they’re pretty cool folks and Mrs. Silverberg makes some mean scrambled eggs, but I don’t really know them at all.

I mean, I broke down and googled “Silverberg record executive” two days after I first met Norah, but it mostly told me things I had already figured out. It fleshed out some of the specifics of her dad’s career, specific bands he had signed and whatnot, but not much in any way that was really all that meaningful to someone who was dating, or at least possibly dating, his daughter.

A month later and at least it's pretty clear that Norah and I are in fact dating. After all, here I am at her graduation. (Which also happens to be my ex's graduation, but I try my best not to think of Tris, not to look at Tris over there in the same graduation robes Norah is wearing.)

Norah stands and walks to the podium to give her valedictory address.

It's mostly the sort of Tony Robbins motivational shit with a few pretentious quotations thrown in that you’d expect from a graduation speech, but even after only a month of knowing Norah I'm pretty sure I can detect the subtle notes of sarcasm and irony and satire. Poe's Law means most of the parents are eating it up for what it seems to be on the surface, oblivious to the parody beneath. I glance at Mr. Silverberg out of the corner of my eye, and while he's smiling, it's less the beaming grin of a proud parent and more of a smirk, which makes me think that Ira Silverberg not only knows exactly what his daughter is doing, but approves of it. Good for him.

Norah launches, completely straight-faced, into an extended metaphor about moths and fire.

This is precisely Norah’s philosophy of straight-edged punk translated into the prose of the not-so-soaring oratory and pedestrian rhetoric of the high school graduation speech, I realize. If Where's Fluffy had to give a high school valedictory address, this would be it, or something damn close to it. I close my eyes and imagine hearing distorted power chords in the background, a frenzied drum beat keeping time.

I open my eyes and look at Norah. She's radiantly beautiful, which is quite the accomplishment given that she's wearing the somewhat absurd costume which is high school graduation robes, complete with her National Honor Society sash. But of course, it doesn't really matter what she's wearing, because that’s not really the beauty I’m talking about. Not that she isn't attractive--she is, if not in the in-your-face way Tris or Caroline are, and you'd better believe I am appropriately appreciative of that fact. But the beauty she's demonstrating right at this specific moment does tend more to the spiritual than the physical, possibly. Again, that's not a complaint.

I find myself filled with desire, physical and spiritual and musical desire all wrapped into one, wanting Norah, needing Norah, loving Norah as Norah launches with gusto into the deliberately trite conclusion to her valediction. The crowd erupts into a polite applause punctuated by Caroline’s ecstatic whoops, and Norah walks back to her seat, replaced at the podium by a Catholic priest who leads a brief closing benediction, and then the graduated Sacred Heart seniors are walking out to the solemn notes of the recessional as played by the underclassmen members of the Sacred Heart concert band.

Once the last of them has walked off, it’s a mad dash for everyone else to leave, the careful choreography of the graduation ceremony giving way to the chaos of organic social interaction. I push my way through the crowd to where the graduated seniors have left to and find Norah, who is standing with Caroline and Tris, all still dressed in their graduation robes.

I kiss Norah, chastely because her parents, having more or less followed me through the crowd, are standing right behind me watching--but she isn’t having any of that. She takes control of the kiss, her mouth pressed hungrily against mine, her tongue slipping in, her hands resting on my ass. “Hey,” she says after she breaks the kiss, her right hand still resting on my ass.

“Hey, Norah,” I answer, trying to focus on her and not her parents, and hand her the gift-wrapped package I’m holding. “Congratulations.”

“Ooh, present!” she says, taking her hand off my ass to grab it with both hands and rip off the wrapping paper. It's just a mix CD and a box of sidewalk chalk, and Norah's face betrays a moment of confusion at the chalk before all the ideas of things she could do with run through her mind and she lights up with a mischievous glee.

“Hey, Nick,” Tris says, the greeting casual, and Caroline echoes with, “Yeah, hey, Nick.”

“Tris, Caroline,” I greet each girl in turn.

I still haven't quite gotten hold of Norah's relationship with Tris. It's part friendship and part antagonism, but there are other parts too, parts tangled up in over a decade of history and which I, who have only known Tris for eight months (if I can even really be said to have known Tris at all during that time) and Norah for one, may never learn to untangle.

2. Norah

“So,” says Tris, glancing at her watch. “It’s still only three in the afternoon. Now what?”

Part of me wants to send Tris away, but most of me doesn’t have the heart to exclude her. We’ve come through so much, me and Tris and Caroline, and here we are on our graduation, the fucking culmination of our lives to this point. Whether or not we actually like each other actually seems somewhat besides the point.

“Some of us go to public school and still have to go to school tomorrow,” Nick points out.

Tris makes a throwing-away gesture. “We can make sure we’re back in plenty of time for your bedtime.”

3. Nick

It probably shouldn’t be any surprise that the girls--or at least Tris and Caroline, but Norah seems to more or less let Caroline vote her vote by proxy, even though Norah is standing right there--want to go into the City. We disperse temporarily so the girls can change out of the dresses and heels they’re wearing under their robes, and so Norah and I end up in the backseat of her father’s car, our bodies pressed together more than the available space really demands. Her father is driving and Mrs. Silverberg is in the front passenger seat next to him.

“That was a very, er, interesting speech you gave, Norah,” Mr. Silverberg notes.

Norah’s smile is large and broad. “Did you like it?” she asks.

Mr. Silverberg chuckles. “I did indeed,” he agrees.

Norah rests her head on my shoulder and weaves her fingers through my own. “Thanks for coming,” she whispers, even though I’m pretty sure attending your girlfriend’s high school graduation isn’t really something to be considered optional. I turn my head and kiss her on her forehead as Mr. Silverberg pulls the car into her house’s huge garage.

I hesitate in the hall once we’ve exited the car and entered the house from the garage, but Norah just grabs my arm and pulls me up the steps and into her bedroom.

It’s only the second time I’ve been to her house, and my first time in her bedroom. I think Norah’s more than a little self-conscious at just how ostentatious her house is, which admittedly is more or less understandable. Her room is at least twice the size of my own bedroom, although it is far les cluttered. The most striking feature of the room is probably the beds--that’s right, beds plural.

I look at Norah inquisitively.

She sighs. “Mine,” she says, pointing at the larger queen-sized bed. “Caroline’s,” she says, pointing at the smaller twin.

I shrug, and content myself with watching appreciatively as Norah kicks off her heels, pulls off the dress she had been wearing under her graduation robes, and slips off her stockings, then is about to pull on a pair of jeans when she turns to me, thoughtfully. “How much time do you think we have?”

I swallow. “Caroline and Tris will be waiting for us,” I point out reluctantly.

“Then we’ll have to be quick about it,” she says. “Get those pants off.”

4. Norah

I can feel his eyes on me as I undress, and it feels so fucking good. I can see the appreciation and desire in his eyes as he watches me strip down to my underwear--hell, I can feel his desire, and before I know it I’m telling him to take his pants off and he’s obeying, his jeans pushed down to knees. I have my hand on his cock and he’s kissing me and one of his hands slides into one of the cups of my brassiere and the other is in my panties where fuck if I’m not already wet, and he’s working the magic I can only assume is natural talent honed and refined by a six-month course at the Tris School of Sexual Technique.

As glad as I may be thar we didn’t go All The Way on the night we met, I’m also glad it didn’t take us all that long to get there eventually, because having to go without his fingers inside me, his thumb confidently pressing against my clit, would be a sacrifice far too great for any even halfway-just God to expect me to bear.

I'm doing my best to reciprocate, and at least there’s one thing that Tal was fucking good for, because this, this I know how to do even without Tris’ googled sex techniques (which are now my googled techniques), even if my control of speed and pressure falters somewhat each time I shiver in response to what Nick is doing to me. But Nick isn’t Tal, critical and complaining and more interested in his book than he is in me, so that’s okay.

Nick is uncharacteristically silent as we each work our magic on the other, but I’m pretty sure he’s half convinced my parents are about to burst into my room and accuse him of sullying their daughter’s purity or something. Which is silly, because a) I would totally be willing to testify on threat of perjury that it had been my idea (which it had), b) they know I came up here to change, so obviously there was going to be a certain degree of nudity at the very least, and c) they’d be far more likely to throw him a party just for not being Tal.

I don’t really get a chance to try out any of the more exotic techniques Tal would have insisted on, though, because Nick comes pretty quickly, almost automatically, his attention clearly much more on me than on his own pleasure. But that extra concentration is pretty clearly paying off, my gain if his loss, because the fireworks are definitely building inside me now. I let myself give into them even as I yearn for the next time we’ll have to take our time and do it right.

But right now, Tris and Caroline await. Fuck.

5. Nick

“Fuck,” Norah says, seconds after letting loose a moan that is really much louder than I’m really comfortable with, given the circumstances. (It’s a really big house, I remind myself. The chances that Norah’s parents heard that moan really aren’t all that big. I hope.)

“Yeah, just did that,” I say with a grin. It’s probably an incredibly goofy grin, but right now I don’t care, because making Norah come is always a satisfying experience even if this time I really do wish she could have been a little bit quieter about it. I look down and see that, while my attention was--ahem-elsewhere, I totally squirted all over her thigh. I run my finger over it, picking up as much as I can, then slip it into my mouth and lick it clean. Salty.

Norah’s face scrunches up adorably. “Gross,” she says, crossing her room to pull a dirty t-shirt out of a hamper. She uses it to wipe her leg and throws it back into the hamper, then picks up the jeans she had been about to get into when she decided to switch to sexcapades instead and puts them on. She puts on a flannel shirt as well, grabs Salvatore out of her closet and tosses him over her shoulder, and slips into a pair of Keds without bothering to tie the laces.

“Let’s go,” she says, and soon I’m being led out of her house and down the street to the house next door. Caroline’s waiting for us there, dressed in a denim skirt and a lacy tank-top, and we wait for a couple of minutes until we watch Tris’ car pull into the driveway.

6. Norah

A quick PATH ride later and we find our little quartet fumbling through Central Park.

The City at day is a very different beast than the City at night, one I am still familiar with (obviously), but not nearly as intimately as its nocturnal counterpart. It takes off one visage at nightfall and puts on the other, like that fairy tale about the selkie or Cameron Diaz’s princess from Shrek. At night, I know everything that is worth knowing.

I’m a native citizen of the City at night no matter what any census might say, but in the harsh light of the NYC day, I’m just a Jersey girl.

We end up going to MoMA, because there’s a special exhibition on Dadaism that Tris wants to see, God only knows why, and none of the rest of us can think of anything better to do. The exhibition is actually pretty interesting, though, and we spend the next hour and a half going from artwork to artwork, taking in that which passed for avant-garde in early 20th-century Europe.

It's only about a half an hour before Caroline--of course--meets a guy. It's almost funny to watch their mating ritual as they talk about the exhbition, their conversation making it clear that he knows almost as little about Dadaism as Caroline does. Of course, Tris then has to attempt to upstage Caroline, with pretty much her usual success despite the fact that, believe it or not, she actually has a pretty solid grasp of what she's talking about.

Caroline and her new boytoy break off from the group. I want to object, but Caroline’s sober and he’s sober, so who am I to tell her what to do? “Make good decisions!” I tell her anyway.

“Thanks, mom!” she says as she and her new guy head off, turning our quartet into a trio--me, Nick, and Tris.

“Norah,” Nick calls out from where he’s standing in front of some sculpture. “Take a look at this.”

I go over to him and look. It’s a white cage filled with white marble cubes and a thermometer, and according to the label it’s by that Duchamps guy who signed a urinal and thus made such a big splash (heh). It says something else about how sneezes are caused by the cold, but I’m taken aback by how pregnant the piece seems to be, as if the white cubes are threatening to at any moment break free from their cage and become, I don’t know, technicolor pyramids or something. It’s so rectangular, so monochromatic, and yet it presents a sense of almost tangible violence, of only barely controlled disorder.

“It’s beautiful,” I say, and Nick slips his hand into mine.

Tris looks from the cage to the explanatory text and back to the cage again. “If you say so,” she says with a shrug, but fuck her. It’s fucking beautiful and I get it and Nick gets it and the fact that Tris doesn’t get it is only even more proof that he and she were never meant for each other in the first place. If we needed any more proof of that, which of course we don’t.

7. Nick

We get kicked out of the museum when it closes at 5:30, then take the subway downtown to Veselka for dinner because it seems like the thing to do. Norah and I hold hands the entire ride down, with Tris watching us from across the subway car. With Caroline's gone she's very much the third wheel now, but I suppose that's not all that different than when it's just her and Norah and Caroline, and I find to my amazement that I feel sorry for her as she stands cut off from what I and Norah are sharing. I thought Tris and I had shared that once, but now I realize that we didn't, or at least she didn't, and I feel nothing but pity for her now, feel like she should get to know what that feels like, how powerful and amazing and wonderful it is to be in love. 

But I know that Tris doesn't want my pity, is content for now at least to give herself up to the moment without ever really having to risk giving her true self up at all. But I find myself letting go of Norah's hand as I wonder just how I'm supposed to be a friend to this girl who is my ex-girlfriend.

8. Norah

As I gleefully plunge into my borscht, I find myself wondering just how many meals like this I have in front of me. Tris has no end in sight, moving to the city as she will be, but for me, Brown beckons. I mean, it's not like I'll never be back to NYC--wild horses couldn't keep me away--but still, there's something about this meal, this graduation dinner, which seems to carry with it a certain note of finality. 

I can't help but glance at the bathrooms, remembering that night a month ago when Tris "gave" Nick to me for fifty dollars cab fare. I try not to remember what else Tris gave me that night, but the memory is vivid even if it is unasked for. I don't count Becca and I don't count Tris, but it occurs to me that if I were to count them (I don't, of course, but hypothetically) then I've kissed the same number of girls as I have boys. Hypothetically, that could be significant.

Tris catches me staring at the bathroom door and gives me a wink.  

9. Nick

“Let’s go to Nick’s house,” Tris says.

No one says anything, which apparently Tris takes for agreement, because five minutes she’s parked the car right in front of my house.

“What are you doing here?” my older sister Lisa asks as we enter the house, glaring at Tris with undisguised antagonism.

“She’s with me,” Norah answers firmly. Lisa’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t say anything.

All of my sisters adore Norah. I mean, so do I, but I admit I am subject to biases they are not. After all, I adored Tris too when we were dating--my sisters, not so much, and clearly the antipathy has not diminished now that we are broken up. But Norah, Norah they like.

10. Norah

“Play something,” Tris says, looking at the guitar sitting in the corner. It’s an acoustic guitar, not the electric bass he uses for shows when The Fuck-Offs perform.

Nick shrugs, goes and picks up the guitar. He starts playing chords without any discernible pattern or melody as he apparently considers what to play. Then the chords begin to find order, falling into a simple enough accompaniment, and he begins to sing.

It takes me a shocked moment to realize that the lyrics he is singing back at us are mine--or rather, they’re my words, my fucking graduation speech, paraphrased and transmuted into song lyrics, given rhyme and rhythm and melody and harmony, and the way he’s singing them right now makes it clear that he gets them, gets me, gets what I was doing with them.

The guitar might be acoustic but the effect is electric, filling me with so much fucking voltage I’m not sure I can take it all, that I won’t orgasm right there just from him singing and playing the guitar, right in front of Tris. And the fact that Nick can almost accomplish with just a song what Tal never could in three years--well, I guess that should tell me something right there, shouldn’t it?

“I don’t envy what you two have,” Tris says, her eyes on me, when Nick’s done the song. I’m still too faint to say anything at all.

“Is she okay?” Nick asks Tris uncertainly, looking at me with worried eyes.

“Oh, she’s more than okay,” Tris answers, looking down at me with a knowing smile.