Two hours later, night was still ringing itself out. Two hours gone, but the storm had been a real howler. A real wind-whipping, sleet-pelting, bone-freezing howler. Now night sulked, as if embarrassed by its own rage. From where we stood, we could see and smell leaves pocked in the river where the storm had thrown them. Remembering nothing, they tippled like water striders downstream, bellying mud in the last terrors of storm surge. All else was still. The river smelled sweet and house fires perfumed the evening, a thousand censers for evensong. We stood above, smoking on the bridge.
For two falls we had come up here to the bridge where girls were made Grovers in being caught and kissed by a rough upperclassman from Lincoln or Memorial. The second fall we started to smoke bad cigars while we watched the river. She was a girl of simple pleasures who could never turn her nose up at anything, even a Swisher. This suited me. Aesthetically confused, I puppydogged any philosophy spoken cogently, vacillating between cerebral pleasures without much understanding and without what Steve Jobs called “taste.” I was in college, so I suppose that’s my excuse. My smoking partner’s simplicity soothed my jangled, over-read mind.
Flame shot from her Bic, and she made a little cubby with her hand for my cigar. Hers was lit already, but badly. Ash frizzed the foot in a potbellied crescent. She couldn’t get a good draw as I bent my head like a monk to catch fire.
I leaned on the bridge, easygoing and aware of everything. I longed for music. But as it was the cardinals were asleep and only robins were out, flying swags over the creek in dips and turns. Fierce waters flushed bugs to the surface, rooting them from silt-beds. It was a good night to be a bird, I thought, though not a great one to be a bug.
In nature there’s an inverse, poetically pure, for preying and prey: one’s mass funeral is the other’s feeding frenzy.
“I can’t believe we’re graduating in two weeks,” said my friend.
“All good things must come to an end,” I smiled with the cigar still in my mouth, a very toothy, clinched smile. She didn’t look amused at my platitude, but zipped her jacket against the cool.
“What are we going to do?” She said.
“Did you hear Jessica got a job with that engineering firm?”
“Mmm” I said.
“Have you been working on your resumé? They’re having a seminar at the career center tomorrow.”
“I’d rather not. I hate that stuff.”
She looked cold and small all of a sudden. Her nose was red. I wished I had told her to go to the seminar. I wish I had given her some kind of advice instead of being a coward. Clinching, I held the cigar in my mouth and continued to puff with my hands in my pockets. In the night, the trees above seemed to bend inward and around, sheltering. I threw back my head and blew smoke into the green.
“So, you’re not worried?” she said.
“Oh, I am.” I said, and then, “Let’s not talk about it.”
It had gotten dark and I was thinking about my walk home. Her cigar hadn’t burned properly and had never given a good drag, so she stubbed it out with still a lot left to smoke. The defunct cigar bothered us both more than it should have. She fussed a bit with the stub. It was too large to trash, so she reinserted it into the stiff cellophane wrapper it came in.
In that absurd moment, watching her push the bum cigar back into its wrapping, I began to resent my education, just a little. Here we were, perched on l’entrée to adult life, having exactly zero clue what we were going to do with our lives. Pampered and swaddled for four years, encouraged to think we could do anything if we tried, we were shocked to find we might both be just kinda... ordinary. The time had come for us to change the world, but we were frightened even to leave Rainbow Bridge with its sweet smell of river and its enclosing trees.
Walking back to my apartment, I watched the robins feasting. Apparently the storm had scrounged up more than just bugs to eat. Crisis called worms from underground, flooding them to exposed rocks and sidewalks. There were hundreds. Sightless, corpulent, lying in puddles of rainwater and ooze, they unwittingly composed a late-night buffet for the birds. Whatever worms weren’t picked off that evening would be gobbled in the morning, I was sure. It would be a long, dark night for bug and worm alike.
But it was impossible to resent the birds. Robins fweeee when they lose altitude, and in groups they titter like ladies at a potluck. Their bodies hold a great concentration of joy, unselfconscious and generously expressed. To watch them fly, you feel your own soul buoy, lifted above thorny “hows” and “whys,” to a simpler contemplation of purpose. To be is to be like the birds, utterly true to design. A bird does not think about what he will eat, he just dives for fat worms when he sees them. A bird does not worry about provision, he just takes what he can get.
Still, a thought would bother me for months and months after the storm: that I was not a bird, but a worm.