“There is a difference between ambition and determination,” Ray says.
“Yeah. Ambition has a long view; determination doesn’t.”
“Unpack that for me a little.”
“You can have an ambition to be King of the Mountain. You and everyone else is scaling the mountain for that position, the top of the mountain is all you and everyone else chooses to see. But you made it to the top because you saw the top of the mountain more clearly. But you could just be determined to get to the top, to topple the King of the Mountain over, and to drag the King back down to the bottom with you.”
“That second one also sounds kind of ambitious.”
“Not if you’re doing it for the fuck of it,” Ray insists, “or for your own narrow and private reasons.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I say, and we are silent for the rest of the afternoon.
Ray and I are in the park when he tells me this. Ray called me up late last night, then he called me again early in the morning, to tell me to meet him in the park. There is a large lake at the center of the park. I meet Ray at the east-facing shore so that we may walk together to the west-facing shore where there is a small stone building made to resemble a castle.
In the miniature castle there is a tower that walks up about 15 feet. We stand in front of the entrance to the tower and Ray points up the narrow spiral stone steps. In the tower there is a slim window where you can look at the whole expanse of the lake. It is a warm, partly cloudy day and people are paddling in the lake or picnicking on its grassy shores. The tower itself is narrow, like the shaft of a model rocket, and only fits two people. It has a romantic feel encouraging closeness if not intimacy and practically coerces anyone in it into kissing.
Ray has taken me to this tower to tell me something I already know.
“I guess we should go,” Ray says breaking the silence. “People are probably waiting.”
When we get back down, there are a clusters of people, some young couples but mostly older tourists, milling around the path in front of the miniature castle. Here perhaps I would nudge Ray and ask if any of them look ambitious or just determined, but none of them look all that eager to go in after us and could just as easily be anywhere else. One man locks a stern pair of eyes onto mine as if cataloging all the ways we may have just abused this amenity. I get a slight tingle of excitement in my lower back, followed by a flush of guilt from head to toe, thinking that he is thinking we are criminals of some sort.
“I have to go back now,” Ray says. “Thanks, man. Take care.” He walks out of the west-facing gate before I could respond.
A sign next to the miniature castle reads “BUILT IN 1976, USING STONES MADE AVAILABLE TO THE CITY BY DEINSTITUTIONALIZATION.”
I am in the passenger seat of a boat bobbing up and down in the tunnel of love. “Passenger seat” is not accurate in a technical sense. In a technical sense, we are both the drivers. But in a thematic sense I am being driven by Ray, who is appropriately in the traditional driver’s side of the boat.
The boat is controlled by pedals set in front of us that we must use our legs to move, which would be fine if Ray was moving them at my more relaxed speed. If that was the case, it would prevent the boat from jerking sharply at either direction and splashing water onto my clothes.
The water over which we are pedaling is so murky as to be a manmade river of ink. It courses down a tunnel that is heart-shaped and gives one the sense that one is in a deformed digestive tract. It is segmented every few feet by thin tubes that pulsate from deep red to hot pink and back again. Their fragmented reflections on the water’s surface make it look crowded with highly aroused electric eels.
A Mariah Carey song blares from unseen speakers. The acoustics of the tunnel turn Ms. Carey’s voice into a banshee being pulled on a rack. The couple behind me, also two men, break through the howls with their arguing. I hear it in pieces that are drearily poetic:
“You’re not listening. You have never listened. You will still not listen when we get out,” one says in desperation.
“I have always been in this tunnel,” the other responds dryly, as if rehearsed.
It is difficult to hear what Ray is saying. It is not for lack of trying on Ray’s part.
“I have an idea for a house,” he says more loudly than the things he said before it that I have forgotten. “It’s a custom design, very modern. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. For many years — around the time we met but before we became friends.”
“There’s this Tudor house I used to live down the street from when I was a kid,” I say. “I’d like to make enough money to live somewhere like that.”
“When my house is built, I’m going to have a big party, one of several. And I’m going to call my house the Simulacrum.”
“Yeah. I like it.”
“Do you know what it means?” I ask in a phrasing I would have reconsidered at the last second under more ideal conditions.
“Yeah,” he says with a laugh.
Exiting the boat, my knee twitches on the edge making it rock. Ray, still seated but reaching out his hand to mine, starts to wobble in the boat. For a second it looks like it’s going to topple him over, but the worker on site steadies it, only getting his pants wet. I think my knee spasm was involuntary.
I don’t want to go for ice cream but I do not refuse when Ray makes the suggestion. Seated at the bench with his cone of mint chocolate chip, Ray takes out a piece of paper that is soaked straight through.
“These were my plans for the Simulacrum,” he says.
When he unfolds the paper there is just a big purple cloud. It’s like a Rorschach blot.
“Shit, I’m really sorry.”
“It’s fine. It was a pretty crude mock-up. I have a different, more detailed version I work on periodically in my notebook.”
“I’m not sure what I could have said about it,” I assured him. “I like architecture, but I don’t know much about it.”
“Me neither, I just thought it would be cool for you to see.”
“I think I’ll just buy a condo.”
Ray wants to go see a movie. Except he doesn’t want to see whatever’s showing at the theater near where he lives or the theater near where I live. The theater he has in mind is outside the city. Far enough outside the city, in fact, to require two separate train rides and a taxi ride.
The theater is in one of those small towns where every business closes at five, except the theater, whose blank marquee is the only light source on the street.
The boy in the ticket booth is a teen with many pimples, some made prominently inflamed by incessant picking. He stares out into the street in a kind of daze and takes a few seconds to realize I’m there.
“One please,” I say.
He stares blankly and tensely as though he is about to be murdered. I scan his face from one side to the other, counting a total of six pimples
“Oh … uhm … Wait, are you the sax guy?”
“Sure,” I say slowly and with an arched eyebrow.
“You can just go in. Everything is ready.”
Ray is sitting in the back row of the theater. Another couple, a person with long curly hair and a person with short cropped hair, sit a few rows ahead at the center.
The lights go down and the screen projects Suspiria.
“I don’t really like horror,” Ray whispers to me almost as soon as the film starts. “It’s not that I think it’s too scary. I just think it’s a lot of needless effort.”
He stops and we resume watching. Five or so minutes later, he resumes.
“I don’t think this is a horror film, though. So I think this is okay.”
“I think they can hear us,” I whisper back.
We look out at the silhouetted couple in front. The curly haired viewer has disappeared and the cropped-haired viewer seemed to be asleep.
I pardon myself to use the restroom. When I come back out, the curly haired viewer, a woman as it turns out, was just exiting the theater, wiping mascara from her right eye that had begun to run. We look at each other and she stops dead with a stunned expression, as if I was a ghost cursed to roam the earth trying to sell people vacuum cleaners.
“What the …” she blurts.
“So you’re the sax guy?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“There must be some mistake.”
“There must be. This is a private fucking function, and you need to leave.”
“I’m sorry, I just need to go — ”
She shushes me and points to the front exit. Not wanting further confrontation, I agree to leave.
I wait outside the entrance for Ray’s own expulsion. The teen is still in the booth, reading Guns & Ammo. But the expulsion does not come. I go around to the back exits to find only an empty parking lot.
On my first train ride back home, I text Ray if he had anything more to say.
When I get home, he replied “no not really”
Ray calls me to come back to the park. He tells me he has a surprise for me. He tells me to go to the southmost part of the park, where along a curved pathway are a line of benches on either side. He tells me that I should sit on whichever bench feels most comfortable. He tells me he’ll take care of the rest.
I’m waiting at the park. The bench I am sitting in has incomprehensible graffiti scrawled in gold and blue ink. None of the benches are very comfortable in the strict sense.
There is a steady procession of people along the pathway. People jogging. People walking their dogs. People walking with their babies. People jogging with their dogs or babies. People holding and picking at Styrofoam containers. People holding and drinking from bottles or cans wrapped in bags. People holding other people. People looking at or yelling into their phones. Very few people rollerblading.
Nothing else happens for 45 or so minutes. Then I see Ray coming under the far stone bridge. Ray is not alone. His left arm is linked to the right arm of a woman in a blue evening gown, a yellow hat with a white ribbon and bow, white gloves extending to her elbows, and a black sheer veil over her face. They walk slowly, almost glidingly, down the pathway. People pay no mind to them, passing them as though they were two rocks in a stream. Every few feet Ray leans into the woman’s ear and appears to whisper something. As they come closer I hear her chirping giggle after every time he talks to her. Ray is whispering a new funny secret to her as they pass me. Without stopping or gesturing, they pass on, giving and responding to new secrets, and melt into the swath of pedestrians.
I return to my apartment. I resume my ongoing project of peeling off, as cleanly as I can, the grocery label of a lid for a container of potato salad.
Before I realize it, it has gotten dark. The label has left a strong layer of film that smudges and thickens the more I try to scrub it off.
I start to picture everything I know. I set them carefully in front of me and watch as they flash and quickly go dark, like a row of light bulbs extinguishing themselves, one after the other.