The Dialectics of Kissing a Girl
by Joanna Friedman
Ten thirty, and it’s been hours of Benny showing me his golf ball collection, muddy ones, cracked ones, smiley faced ones. There’s even one found in the river that looks like it’s growing fur.
“Doug,” he says, and wipes the dirt off another golf ball, tosses it into a storage container in his closet. “You need to get some life goals.”
“First goal,” I pick up the smiley one. “Figure out why you’re collecting these.”
“Things are happening for me, Doug.” He pauses shining. “When they put my name next to these at the museum it might inspire, you know, Julia.”
“Julia? Never heard of her.” But of course I know Julia Bernstein, five houses down from him on the golf course, two houses from mine.
“Seriously, do you think getting the exhibit would make her more likely or less likely to want to be my girlfriend.”
“Wouldn’t be a goal if we already knew,” I say.
Text from Mom: Pyth Vader’s out again.
I show him the message. “Look, a goal.” Pyth is on the run. Slithered to freedom.
“That’s not a goal, that’s you not securing his cage.” But he’s grabbing his boots.
Good thing too, because we’re going out on the golf course, in the dark and wind. I text Mom that we’re leaving.
Benny must assume my lack of expression means something deep because he says, “You know how you never worry about anything?”
That isn’t exactly the truth, but I nod as we head for the door.
“That calm will help now, especially when Vader’s getting eaten by an owl, or worse, a rattlesnake.” He grabs a hat and punctuates the whole thing by a final zip of his jacket.
I hadn’t thought about the owls, but the snake eating a snake thing is just horrible. “A Ball Python would never let himself get eaten.” Every other time we’d found him sunning on a rock near the edge of the course, but tonight it’s late. No sunny spots. He could be anywhere.
“Flashlight?” Benny holds one out.
I turn him down.
“Good thinking.” He returns the flashlight to the closet. “Maybe our infrared heat sensing snake vision will kick in.”
“Or we can just allow the rods in our eyeballs to adjust.” I decide not to get into a whole discussion about why we can see better at night without flashlights.
Benny settles things with his parents and we walk out into the dark, to the wooden fence, the boundary between Benny’s lawn and the golf course.
“Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like for Vader? Your huge hand reaching in from heaven–” Benny asks, as we’re climbing over. “Vader’s ready. Drooling. But no. Fail. Just the Frozen Mouse Pop special. No wonder he heads out, he wants to show you he’s a real snake.”
“I take him out, sometimes.”
There’s cold wind thrashing against the trees, wind chimes, the sprinklers. I can barely hear Benny, he talks like a professor while the world is shaking around us. “No, listen. He loves you so he tolerates his cage, but he’s also a hunter, so he escapes. Freedom clashes with love. There’s your dialectic.”
“Dialectic?” I yell.
“Ancient Greek 101, Doug. Dialectics.” He’s stops walking. “Two opposites examined to see if they can fit together to form a greater truth. Hunting versus loving you. Both are in his nature.”
It’s debatable whether snakes can love, but I decide not to mention this.
He places his hand on my shoulder. “Vader’s clear on his goals, and you Doug, need to find yours.”
But all I can feel is the wind blowing from the fairway and heartache thinking about Vader slithering away from his heat lamp.
The houses on the edge of the course create circles of light near the wooden fence. My watch reads 12:05 am. The wind whips the clouds onto the peaks of the nearby mountains. I check Vader’s sunning rock out of habit, but like I suspected, he’s not there.
As we continue down the path, past my house, past Julia’s darkened house, Benny says, “If we get bit by a rattler, I have a contingency plan.” With every step, he’s looking a few feet ahead, picking up the random golf ball.
“Do I want to hear this?” Each fallen branch is large enough for a hiding spot.
“Run faster than you’ve ever run before. Get to the hospital. Get the anti-venom.”
“Brilliant. No one’s ever thought of that.”
The three balls in his basket stop rolling when he stops. Looks me dead in the eye. “If it happens, we’re ready. Coyotes, too. I have a contingency plan for them as well.” Trees bend and sway, creak like they have a soul inside them. “The only thing I don’t have a plan for is if Julia started crying. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
There’s no making a contingency plan for most things in my opinion. “I like to be alone when I cry.” I toss another golf ball in his basket. We head half a mile, down two fairways toward the power lines, the end point for mowed grass. Past there, only wild weeds, and billions of places for Vader to hide.
The golf balls roll in his basket. “But then how does that work.? I love her, but she’s alone and crying? That doesn’t seem like loving someone.”
The wet seeps into my sneakers and socks, and the wind is messing with my hair. “How about you hug her, or kiss her? Usually that makes people feel better.”
He finds a muddy ball and brushes it off. “You know, if a coyote came toward us, I’d just give him room to pass or kick him in the jaw.” A blooming magnolia stands near the edge of the course. “But if Julia was crying-” Fallen petals, lit by a flood light from a nearby house, splay in a circle around its base. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“You’d kick a coyote?” Sometimes Benny’s ideas just didn’t make one bit of sense. “Wouldn’t we just run away?”
“No, we’d have to show him we own the golf course.”
“Good thinking. Kicking someone in the jaw proves everything.” The green stretches out ahead, a broken sprinkler keeps rotating into a trash can. Billions of microscopic droplets turn into a creature, a hollow vibrating creature waiting in the mist.
Benny nods, “Yeah, but I don’t think Julia likes violence much.”
The wind is attacking my jacket. It’s tearing through trees. Somewhere ahead, there’s a chopping helicopter sound.
About ten balls roll around in Benny’s basket when he says, “I mean if Julia’s crying I could kiss her.” He pauses, swallows. “Yeah, I really want to kiss her, but I want to figure out this sadness thing. Because if the sadness continued, like if someone’s died or something, the kiss wouldn’t work.”
We chew on the possibility of infinite sadness as we near where the power lines swing. “When she ripped up her knee playing tether ball, she kept going. Like nothing happened,” I say.
The foothills rise in both directions, and I follow the power lines to where they disappear. The tower rises above, metal spikes along its frame making it impossible to climb. I imagine it anyway, the view from the top.
Benny grimaces. “You know, you really need to secure Vader’s cage better.”
Why don’t I? A gust snaps at a nearby tree and one of the lines makes a strumming sound, like a giant, or God himself playing the world’s largest guitar. Another gust, the tree bends. Branches crack and break. Golf balls fall out of Benny’s basket as the tree sways onto the power line. It’s sparking and sizzling, threatening to fall. Threatening to snap the line.
Benny’s a way up the green, screaming, “Doug, move. Move-” The wind washes out the rest.
But he doesn’t need to remind me, because my legs are moving, my blood fizzes with adrenaline, reminding me about life and death and the reason for fear. The tree just died, but if it had landed a few feet over, it could’ve been me. I’m okay, just like Vader is safe somewhere. The house lights in the distance are out, it’s pitch black at three a.m., but my eyes have adjusted and see just fine.
I tell Benny, “I’d let my instincts kick in. That’s what I’d do if a girl cried. It’s what I’ll do about my goals. Listen to my gut. Trust the snake eyes.”
Benny’s crying as I hand over the golf balls. “That was freaky. So freaky.” He counts as he drops them in his basket.
I can tell he’s kind of embarrassed, so I say. “I think you’re ready for Julia. I think girls like it when guys cry.”
We wander the course for a while, down to the river, past the Magnolia tree. The sky turns light gray. Lights come on in Julia’s house. Benny tosses one of the golf balls into her yard.
She slides the glass of her patio doors, her pony tail bounces as she picks it up. “Can I have it for the maze?”
There are hundreds, and they’re lined up in all sorts of curvy rows in her garden. But it’s incomplete.
“Here have these.” He lifts the basket over her fence and hands over everything he’d just collected. “I have a bunch more at the house I can bring over later.”
Her eyes turn wide. “From your collection?”
He turns pink, takes off his hat and bows. “Until then.”
That’s so corny, Benny. But Julia giggles before going inside, and I think how it might not be the worst move anyone’s ever made.
The sun’s starting to come up over the edge of the mountain, and by the time we make it back to Benny’s house the first rays beat down on Vader’s rock. There, extra full, round and happy, warming in the sunrise, he’s curled up and sleeping.
Benny says, “You see there’s the dialectic, Doug. One life continues, the other has ended. Life and death. Happy and Sad. Right there, on that rock.”
I touch Vader’s skin, and say, “Maybe that’s why I don’t secure his cage so tight.”