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For David Hale Smith

Ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta

coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;

ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

—Dante

Inferno, canto 21, lines 137–39

Save me darlin’

I am down but I am far from over

—Frank Stallone

“Far from Over”

Dear Julie,

This is going to be hard to explain, but

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She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues.

—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

JULIE LIPPMAN WOKE up early the day her boyfriend died.

As she forced her eyes open and searched her memory bank for the date, she was relieved to discover it was Sunday, the last day of Christmas break, and she had absolutely nothing to do until that evening, when a bus would (she hoped) bring Bobby back to campus. Nothing to do was good, because she was hungover to the point of active nausea and her head throbbed from all the blow and the lack of sleep. It had all seemed like a good idea at the time. A kind of exorcism, a final wiping of the slate before a return to what she prayed was normalcy. God, what a week.

She hadn’t seen Bobby since the day before break. He had left in the middle of the night, the day before Christmas Eve, without a word. She had been vaguely aware of him kissing her forehead before slipping downstairs and out the town house door into the brisk December morning, leaving nothing but the start of a lame good-bye note that she later fished out of the wastepaper basket in his dorm room.

At the time, though, she thought he was being a dick.

Still, Julie was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the semester has stressed Bobby out, and he needed a little time to himself. So she decided to be a good girl the first week. Went home, did the Christmas thing. Got mildly buzzed on some good white wine—like her father would ever miss it—watched cable TV, even tried to read a little of next semester’s lit anthology.

But by New Year’s Eve, she’d grown bored with the good-girl thing. Was she supposed to live like a nun? Just because Bobby was off somewhere with his panties in a bunch? So she finally called and agreed to hang out with Chrissy Giannini, and that led them to a rooftop party somewhere, and that led her to a white tile bathroom with a group of people she didn’t know, and that led to a toilet lid with a line of blow on it. She was drunk enough to get down on her knees, feeling the cold tile through her black stockings. Drunk enough to lean forward and snort. And with that first hard snort, the good girl inside her settled down for a long winter’s nap.

Week two was all very Less Than Zero—Julie could practically hear the Bangles singing about a ha-zy shade of pure blow. Only she was coming back east from school out west, and Main Line Philadelphia was not exactly L.A. Her life became a dizzying succession of parties, from house to apartment to dorm room. She met up with a high-school boyfriend she thought she’d never see again; they spent what seemed like an eternity on a mattress in a high-rise apartment near the University of Pennsylvania campus, Julie insisting he keep his hands above her waist; the ex stubbornly, drunkenly refusing, a smile on his face the whole time. Later that night she crawled into the hallway, dragging her clothes with her, wishing her head would stop throbbing, using a dirty wall to support herself as she dressed, feeling a wave of regret wash over her. What the hell did I do? What am I doing?

The shame dogged her all the way back to her dad’s house, which was empty and cold and quiet. The Philadelphia winter had frozen her favorite quiet spot, the garden out back. There was nowhere left to go but school. Two expensive cab rides later, she was at the airport and flying back to campus, wishing she could erase the past week. Once home, she curled up next to her apartment’s heater and tried to read and sip coffee but all she could think about was Bobby, and how she would never do something this stupid again.

So now it was morning, Sunday morning, and she had the day to kill. Bus was due midafternoon.

But the bus never came.

By evening, the news was spreading around campus: a charter plane had crashed in the Nevada desert, just outside West Wendover, killing twenty-four people. All Leland University people, coming back from a holiday service project, building new housing for the impoverished.

Students were smoking on the lawn, some holding candles, some crying. Everyone looked dazed. A series of conflicting emotions washed over her. There was relief that Bobby hadn’t traveled by air—in fact, she’d once laughed when he said he’d never traveled by air before. Like, ever. She was also in shock at the idea that she may have known someone on that plane. Worry that Bobby still wasn’t back yet—and that was mixed with guilt. Maybe he’d heard somehow. Heard how she really spent her Christmas vacation, and now he’d never be coming back.

Come on, Bobby. Where are you?

Just before midnight someone had cobbled together a list of names; they used the copy machine in the student-union building and started to circulate the flyers. A page was pressed into her hand as she walked past the lawn. She glanced down, bracing herself for familiar names, and…

No.

Not possible.

Not even remotely possible.

Julie punched the combination—24, 3, 15—into the metal buttons on the outside of Bobby’s door, turned the knob. The room hadn’t been occupied for two weeks and smelled like it. Julie scanned the room for the culprit. Someone had tossed a half-eaten sandwich in the plastic wastebasket. There was the usual assortment of Pepsi cans covered in cigarette ashes. Bobby’s roommate, Pags, used them as impromptu ashtrays while he sat cross- legged on the floor and listened to Cure albums nonstop. Smoke and decaying meat; one hell of a combination. Julie covered her face with a sweater sleeve, pitched at least a dozen Pepsi cans into the wastebasket, then carried the wastebasket to the end of the hall, dumped it. Though she wasn’t sure why she bothered. Neither of the occupants

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