An Angel in the Juvenile Phase Peter W. Fong
Time Commitment: 17 minutes
Originally Published In:

I’d come 1800 miles north since Thanksgiving. From the Sunshine State to the Bay State, driving my father’s rusted station wagon, burning oil and memories. I had no idea what I was going back to. It wasn’t Elizabeth exactly—although she was part of it. And it wasn’t the family home in Concord, or even my unfinished Harvard dissertation. That past lay under six feet of warm water, buried—I thought—by a year on Coral Key. I fingered the wheel with a leisurely and empty-headed ease, slipped by the sleeping suburbs of New York just after midnight, then ran slam into Monday rush hour on Route 128 outside Boston.

A sea of angry traffic in both directions. All those commuters alone in their cars, the frustration rising in their faces like fever. I pulled into the breakdown lane and tried to think. Another mile to the Turnpike exit. Then nine to Elizabeth’s apartment in Harvard Square. Figure fifteen minutes to find a place to park, and—what did my life add up to?

The station wagon was loaded with dive gear: masks, fins, regulators, tanks, enough lead to sink a small skiff. I don’t know why I brought it all with me. The Charles flows like a river of sludge between its grassy banks. I couldn’t imagine submerging myself in that murk. I knew some guys who dove off Nahant and Gloucester, but who in their right mind wants to freeze their ass off looking at cod?

Just a week ago I’d been working in eighty-degree water, netting tropicals to sell in Miami. My porcupine fish were on display at Epcot Center, my queen angels at the National Aquarium. I told my father that I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I visited one of my fish in its new habitat. In a way, it was a job that he groomed me for. He used to take me to Walden Pond, just a five-minute drive from the house. We’d wear hip boots and carry long-handled nets, come home with a bucket of newts and tadpoles, bullheads and bluegills. We had a 100-gallon fish tank in the living room and my job was to recreate a balanced ecosystem—whatever that was. My idea of balance at that age was to keep replacing the dead fish with newer, livelier ones. I put an eight-inch pickerel in there once and he cleaned out the entire tank in a week. Ate everything that moved. I tried to keep him happy with schools of minnows, but he tore through them like a shark. Though we tried, Dad and I couldn’t catch another pickerel for company. Maybe he ate to stave off loneliness. Eventually we let that one go, back into the pond, with others of his kind. I know enough about fish behavior now to be thankful that we hadn’t managed to find him a mate. If she’d been just a fraction under eight inches, he’d have eaten her too.

I pulled back into traffic, back amongst the hordes hobbling to their desk jobs. I’d written to Elizabeth, told her that I was quitting the Keys, that I wanted to spend a week or so with her, trying to patch things up. She’d told me to “stop by when I got to town.” Stop by? What did that mean?

My name is Adam Eve. No it’s not. It’s Adams Everett. Adams was my mother’s maiden name, my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side, however you want to say it. But at mixers and cocktail parties I’ll introduce myself as Adam Eve. It stirs up conversation for five or ten minutes anyway, enough for most folks to feel that they’ve discharged their social obligation to me.

That’s how I met Elizabeth, at a Career Day reception at Vassar. My best friend Andie and I were hunting for grad schools, she in social work, and me in marine biology. We saw this girl in a white silk dress moving among the tweedy power suits like a butterfly fish in a school of alewives. She had round and heavy-lidded eyes, a lower lip which swelled forward to a kiss. We both fell for her; I introduced myself. It turned out that her parents lived just down the road from mine in a mock Tudor mansion. Her mother was a dean at Emerson College, her father an executive with Prudential. We’d gone to competing boarding schools, had probably seen each other at soccer games. Before the semester was out, we’d moved off-campus to a two-bedroom apartment—Andie in one bedroom, Elizabeth and myself in the other.

Who knows what I was doing at Vassar in the first place. The trustees had only decided to admit men a few years before. I thought it might be a nice twist on the Ivy League legacy—Dad graduates from Harvard; Mom from Vassar; only son follows in mother’s footsteps. I could imagine my father joking with his pathologist colleagues: “The boy went to Vassar—that’s right, the girl’s school—the kid’s not stupid.” And he’d be right—I wanted to live with women. I used to go to the pharmacy in Concord and stare at the covers of women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. Every month there was a new girl, more or less beautiful but always attractive. She drew your eye and held it. I guess that’s what she got paid for.

Sometimes I’d feel like some sort of suburban wolf—the Coyote of Concord, or something like that. Even at Vassar there was a time when I couldn’t pass a woman on campus—student, professor, or dining hall staff—without wondering if she’d sleep with me. I’d feel guilty about objectifying women, and try to rationalize my way out of it. I figured that if I considered each one as an individual, then it wasn’t really objectification, right?

“Relax,” Andie said. “It’s a common affliction: DSB—Dangerous Sperm Build-up. You’ll grow out of it.”

I was always coming up with these wild crushes on women. But I really only made two friends in those four years: Elizabeth and Andie.

When we all moved to Cambridge after graduation—Elizabeth for law school, Andie for a master’s in social work, and me for a doctorate in comparative zoology—we split up into two apartments, with Andie going it alone. I don’t think Elizabeth ever appreciated her, though they spent a lot of time together. “All we have in common is you,” she used to say, as if that explained it.

Andie was something else entirely. She slept with women and men but never with me. I visited her in Los Angeles after what turned out to be my last semester at Harvard. She’d gone home to see her parents for a month and needed a break. We went to a club in Silver Lake called Fuck. It was a wild place, in the basement of a laundromat. A long, narrow room with a short hook at the doorway. After a suitable wait outside, we walked past the bouncer and down three or four steps, where a girl in a peach-colored push-up bra took our money, and a guy in a tight black T-shirt stamped the backs of our hands with the word fuck! Like it needed the exclamation point.

The walls, ceilings, and floors were spray-painted black. But the room glowed with strobes and white skin. The lights pulsed very fast, so that the intervals of darkness were almost too short to recognize. There were pedestals scattered around the room, and bare-chested men danced on top of them. Most of the patrons were either fantastically dressed or near naked. Lots of guys in black leather briefs, with chains around their necks, pierced noses, pierced nipples. One guy even had a ring through his belly button.

There were a few college kids like us, and some financial-market types staring open-mouthed from the sidelines, but most of the crowd seemed serious about their fetishes. One of the dancers chained himself to a handy pair of manacles mounted on the wall. Then another guy swabbed the manacled one’s bare back with a sponge soaked in alcohol and lit him with a cigarette lighter—like a human Baked Alaska. A cold blue glow flickered from the base of his spine to the nape of his shaven neck. It reminded me of one of Dante’s infernos, except that everyone seemed to be having a good time. I kept telling myself, “These are people, and I am a person.”

Andie grabbed my wrist and yanked me onto the dance floor. The music was post-industrial: fast, repetitive, noisy and electronic. The human voices sounded altered and mechanical: “Bow down / before / the one / you serve / you’re going / to get / what you / deserve.” That refrain reminded me of one of my humanities professors, whose favorite warning was “sado-masochism is the necessary consequence of romanticism.” I’d never known what she meant until then.

I found myself dancing alongside a girl whose breasts looked like they were resting on plates. She would’ve made one hell of a cocktail waitress. I was leaning over to tell Andie this when a guy with a handlebar mustache and a nose ring big enough to put your fist through shouldered past us on the dance floor. Andie touched her lips to my ear and whispered, “Poor guy must have fallen on his retainer.” I started laughing, then Andie fell over backwards. Four bondage-types politely helped her up. We jumped and sweated like everyone else for a couple hours, then headed over to a late-night sushi place Andie knew.

“What did you think?” she asked, while the chef was preparing our order.

“It didn’t shock me,” I said. And it didn’t, really. I was doing some research on reproductive strategies in fish, and was completely taken in by the idea of natural variation. Most kinds of fish have only the two, familiarly distinct sexes, but the wrasses, for example—green wraiths with sleek pectorals that flap like bird’s wings—change sexes the way lobsters shed their shells. They start out small, drab, and female; end up as bigger, brightly colored males. They have names like bluehead, slippery dick, and puddingwife.

Down in the Keys, working underwater, I’d replay that evening in my head. I’d cache a string of tanks along the bottom so I wouldn’t have to surface for hours, then stake a barrier net around a clump of coral and start picking up fish. It’s strange the way most fish never think of swimming up and over the barrier. They’ll just keep bumping their noses into the mesh. I’ve caught entire schools that way: yellow tangs, porkfish, triggerfish, parrotfish. After nabbing all the easy ones, I’d break open a sea urchin and scatter the orange roe to attract angels. There are several kinds, and they all have distinct juvenile and adult phases. A young French angel is blue-black with yellow bars; the adults are mostly black, with gold-rimmed scales.

That night at the sushi bar with Andie, the urchin roe was called uni and cost two bucks a serving. We let it linger on our tongues, savoring the soft explosion of horseradish and the taste of the sea. I doubt that Elizabeth would’ve tried it, or that she would’ve enjoyed Club Fuck. When I got back from Los Angeles, we didn’t seem to be on speaking terms, so I never had the chance to tell her about it.