Kayley's Constellations

Hubbard was taking a course on War & Peace and Anna Karenina on Monday nights at Lakeland Community College, and the professor was Hubbard's age, which didn't inspire confidence. Most of the students were older than the professor, older than Hubbard: bearded, backpack-toting retirees, and middle-aged women with loud raspy voices. The men usually nodded off during class, while the women rambled on about their own unhappy families, and this didn't inspire confidence either, at least not in Hubbard.

Class lasted two hours, but 40 minutes in, just as Hubbard was finally working up the nerve to interrupt the women and say what he'd been thinking all weekend essentially that Levin was a really great guy, though he hoped to make it sound more intelligent than that LeAnn Koleske raised her hand and demanded a smoke break. Before the poor professor could even assent, the women rose in unison and zipped up their puffy coats with fur-fringed hoods, which, worn over leggings, made them look like blown-up versions of their own kids dressed as pumpkins or gourds or snowballs for Halloween. Rummaging through their purses, they hustled out the side door of the Lakeland Community College West Annex Building.

Hubbard didn't smoke, but he followed the women anyway, since he'd been working all day at the mattress store and was longing for some fresh air. Besides, he didn't want to be left alone with the nodding retirees and the professor, whom Hubbard felt nervous around outside of class time, unsure whether the similarity in their ages overrode their teacher-student relationship, or vice versa. So he headed outside and sat on the steps beneath the cold white stars, eating a sandwich and trying to read in the cone of salty blue light from the security lamps. But it was too cold to concentrate, and he wound up watching the women as they huddled in the little alley beside the concrete fountain, which froze up in winter, and smoked their Kool 100s, bobbing their knees against the cold.

As they smoked, the women began to talk loudly about blow jobs– so loudly that Hubbard wondered whether the women, who always talked loudly, were speaking especially loudly for his benefit, so that their blow-job talk would not be drowned in the night wind that whipped off Lake Oshetega, but would reach his ears instead. Or maybe it was accidental, and the women didn't care one bit whether Hubbard heard them talking about blow jobs, when they gave their first blow job, when they gave their last blow job, how many total blow jobs they had approximately given in the course of their blow-job-giving lives. Either way, the words "blow job" clearly reached Hubbard's ears, as he sat there on the side steps of the LCCWAB, his book on his lap, eating a bologna-and-tomato sandwich because he worked till seven on Monday nights and thus had no time to prepare a bologna-and-tomato omelet, or, better yet, some of his famous bologna-and-tomato pasta.

Hubbard knew that he was not the epicenter of the universe, and so it was a mistake to think that everything that happened happened to him. The wind did not whip off Lake Oshetega to make him, Jim Hubbard, cold, and similarly the women smoking Kool 100s did not, or probably did not, use wind-piercing voices to convey to him, Jim Hubbard, their talk of blow jobs. On the other hand, while the wind didn't intend to make Hubbard feel cold, it was entirely possible that the women intended to make Hubbard feel something with their wind-piercing talk of blow jobs, the proper duration of a blow job, when should a blow job be abandoned, the optimal time of day at which to administer a blow job. At this point, then, the question became, what did the women mean, provided they meant something, which granted was impossible to prove, unless Hubbard asked them, which was impossible?

Sometimes, when Hubbard saw a photograph of himself, one taken from an angle that showed the round bones of his face in an unfamiliar way, or captured an expression different from the one he fashioned for the mirror, it jolted him the way a sudden recovery from amnesia might. Such a photograph seemed to prove that he'd been wrong all along, everything he'd ever done and thought and said had been utterly and terribly false, since it all failed to take into account the existence of the person in the photograph, who could only be Hubbard and no one else, but whom Hubbard didn't even recognize.

How much harder then, Hubbard thought, to see himself from these women's point of view, when even his own view of himself could be cast into doubt by a photograph. Because while Hubbard was Hubbard, these women were these women, and so to see himself through their eyes, he'd have to first step outside himself, which even in the case of the photograph he couldn't really do. And then, if he, Hubbard, did manage to escape his own body and mind– which would require a miracle– he'd then have to enter into the bodies and minds of these women, which would require a second, more elaborate miracle.

Hubbard was 24 years old. Although he ate a lot of bologna, and bologna was mostly fat, he was not fat. Nor was he short. In fact, he was rather tall. Each night, before bed, he did 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups, in sets of 25. Therefore it was not impossible that the women, who were after all quite a bit older, and less fit, might have found Hubbard sexually palatable, or even desirable. They might even have thought him a stud, a strapping young stud, a stallion, and so purposely projected their talk of blow jobs through the noisy wind, perhaps to suggest to Hubbard that they might perform blow jobs on him, or perhaps because they derived an idle pleasure from speaking of blow jobs the role of the tongue, the role of the hands, swallowing within earshot of a strapping young stallion such as Hubbard.

Watching the women lipstick-stain their long cigarettes, blowing the smoke upward into the noisy wind, hair-feathers mixing with the furry fringes of the satiny hoods of their puffy coats, feet locked together and knees bobbing gently against the cold, Hubbard could almost see himself in this way, as an object of sexual desire. But deep down he could never believe it, because he, Hubbard, at 24, had, in simple point of fact, never received a blow job. Though from day to day this didn't disturb him much, still in the presence of these women and their blow-job talk he began to worry that this simple fact, this condition which, when he thought of it, struck Hubbard as so strange, so contrary to the lived life he knew was somehow plainly obvious to these chain-smoking women, who had no doubt developed, over the years, a formidable body of knowledge about blow jobs and blow-job-related topics, a womanly intuition, such that they could glance once at him, Jim Hubbard, and see it written all over his face: never been blown.

 Was it really possible, Hubbard wondered, that he had never been blown? It seemed impossible he was not a freak, nor was he a prude, he was Jim Hubbard, former captain of the Lakeland South basketball team, first-team all-county forward, now maintaining an honor-roll GPA at LCC while working a respectable albeit unstellar job at Verlo Mattress. A good, normal guy. Granted, there had been a few undiscussable years in there, years of watching TV in his parents' attic, after his sister Kayley died, but he had finally recovered his Jim Hubbardness, his good-normal-guy-ness. And though the years of 19, 20, and 21 were admittedly prime blow-job-getting years, which he had admittedly wasted, still before and since he was a normal, blow-job-worthy guy. He had friends, and he and his friends went to bars on the weekend and talked to the girls they knew from high school, and the girls the girls they knew from high school knew, and occasionally a girl Hubbard knew from LCC, and he was an easygoing guy with a newish Ford Probe who had read Anna Karenina, and loved his sister, and was working, slowly but surely, toward a degree in Business Finance.

And he was also the guy whom Beth Oettinger, the incomparably lovely Beth Oettinger, described on Prom Night as "the most darling-eyed boy in Lakeland." And so, according to any normal standards, he was a guy who should have received, since puberty, at least an average number of blow jobs, be it 24, or 60, or 441. Hubbard wasn't sure about the stats. Most of the time, in fact, he just assumed that he had received that many blow jobs, since everyone else seemed to think so, and Hubbard couldn't see any reason not to believe them.

But when he heard LeAnn Koleske make a slurping sound with her cheeks, glancing in his direction while she expertly lit a second cigarette against the wind, the realization that he had never been blown, not even once, struck him much the way the photograph taken from an unfamiliar angle did. This just-revealed person was him it was clearly him but it didn't seem like him at all. He barely believed it. A photograph was proof that he, Jim Hubbard, had looked a certain way at a certain moment through a camera lens. But allegations of never having had a blow job were dauntingly hard to prove. There was no record of blow jobs at City Hall, and there was certainly no record of the absence of blow jobs. There was only a string of blow-job-free days in Jim Hubbard's past, and this was the odd thing: because everyone had blow-job-free days, except possibly an NBA player, or a really famous rapper. And what was his, Jim Hubbard's, blow-job-free life, thus far, except a bundle of blow-job-free days, tied together with the thin thread of Jim Hubbard's memory? It was nothing but that. It was exactly that.

And yet, though there was nothing unusual about a blow-job-free day, there was something unusual, something downright eerie, about a blow-job-free life, even though a life was just a summation of days, one plus one plus one, and nothing else. Just the way that after Hubbard's sister, Kayley, dove into the quarry from the cliff that all the kids in Lakeland dove into the quarry from on star-shot summer nights when no cops were around, all the kids, the high-school kids of Lakeland, leaping in succession off the high cliff on star-shot summer nights, grabbing up at the stars and then bicycle-wheeling their legs or arching over into a downward knife-slice through the darkness, holding their screams in at first before letting it all out halfway down, one after the other, or else a group of girls grasping hands and leaping together feet-first on the count of three, which Jim Hubbard had seen countless times from across the quarry on bright-moon nights, five girls' hands lifting in unison, five ligatured Y's dark against the less-dark cliff for a split-second before separating, wondrous to watch, what all the kids of Lakeland had always done, what Jim Hubbard himself had always done, celebrated so many star-shot summer nights in humid Lakeland this way, leaping off the cliff with friends, even during that first summer home from college, that distant dream of a far-off college he'd attended for one year, he and his friends gathered for beer-drinking and cliff-leaping on several nights that summer, up till and including the night it happened, the night Kayley Hubbard let go of Gina Nesby's hand and flipped her Y-shape into a downward knife-slice Kayley was a varsity diver and plunged toward the water like every high-school kid in Lakeland with an ounce of courage or self-confidence or susceptibility to peer pressure had ever done since the day that the quarry had finished being excavated for its rock and mineral and was filled with water, every kid including Jim and Kayley Hubbard, except Kayley didn't hit the water but instead the floating seat of a broken metal folding chair, the first kid in history to ever do this on a star-shot summer night well, after that happened, Jim Hubbard knew that being alive was just a bundle of days of not being dead, tied together with a thin thread of memory, and that being dead was just a bundle of days of not being alive, tied together with nothing.

So the days lined up for Hubbard, his and Kayley's both. Days of watching TV in the attic, of always wearing a blanket around his shoulders when he went downstairs to eat. Days of having to be comforted by his parents when he wished he could be comforting them. Of course no one was at fault, it was an accident, whatever that meant, but Hubbard had groped for the same stars that very night, and so he felt, in some way, responsible.

Thinking of Kayley this way, as the wind whipped fiercely up the little alley, Hubbard regretted ever spending a single second worrying about blow jobs. But on the other hand, life went on, at least for the living, and Kayley, it occurred to him, was not the sort of girl who would have wanted him never to get a blow job, as some kind of weird tribute, or something. Even though Kayley died at 15, Hubbard felt certain that she had not died without giving at least one and probably quite a few blow jobs, and then demanding that the boy return the favor, because that was how Kayley was– "irrepressible" was how adults described it, when they weren't upset with her.

It made Hubbard smile now, into his open book, to think that Kayley had possibly even become the Blow-Job Queen of Lakeland South by the end of her sophomore year, Hubbard's lone forgotten year at the far-off college. When Kayley was alive, of course, such a thought would have gnawed at Hubbard like an ulcer. He was a protective big brother, but not the kind who would have beaten the snot out of a guy his sister had blown, even though he, Hubbard, was tall and fit, and capable of beating the snot out of most guys. If he'd ever heard of such a thing, his sister's blow-job prowess, he would have stewed but said nothing. He'd never, in fact, heard of such a thing, but now, putting the words "Kayley" and "blow job" into the same mental sentences for the very first time, it seemed quite obvious that she was exactly the girl who would have been first to begin giving blow jobs, the Stacey Merving of her class, though smarter and far more lovely, and, Hubbard hoped, slightly more picky about whom she blew.

Yes, Kayley would have certainly been the first. She was the bravest person he knew, the most daring and curious, the most freely giving and the most unconcerned about what anyone else might say or think. And she was the most loving person Hubbard had ever met, the most carelessly loving person, and she would have reigned over the world of blow jobs like a goddess, like a constellation, as Hubbard now saw. She would have been fanatical about blowing whomever she loved, even if she only loved him a little, be it Trevor Szymczak, or Wes McCabe, or Brad Albini. Hubbard didn't care to think about that part.

But then again, why not think about it? Brad Albini was a part of it too, the lanky dread-locked soccer player who was two years younger than Hubbard, one year older than Kayley, and the fact that Kayley had blown Brad Albini, as Hubbard now saw, as the women stubbed out their second round of Kool 100s with the toes of pointy boots, still bobbing their knees like sandpipers the fact that Kayley had blown Brad Albini was a part of it too, it was of a piece with everything, there was no separating Brad Albini from Kayley Hubbard, from the summer stars above Lakeland, from Jim Hubbard himself, from Anna Karenina and the capital of Paraguay and the blanket Hubbard wore around his shoulders for three years, as if it would protect him, keep him warm, as if it were the kind of swimmer's shawl that Kayley wrapped herself in at meets when she climbed from the water after a dive, glancing over at her big brother for a nod of approval which, thank God, he had never failed to give. All of the constellations, all of the star-shapes that Kayley and Jim Hubbard and every other kid in Lakeland had ever groped for, legs kicking, screams coming, in that tiny ascent that is basically all of life, that is all that could ever be hoped for from life all of these constellations had been named long ago, as Hubbard now saw, for women who were just like Kayley.

Hubbard shut his book, stood up, and held the door for the shivering, shuffling women, nodding down at them as they passed. There were a million things you had to hold in your head at once, while you were alive, and Kayley blowing Brad Albini was one of those million things, and you were dead if you forgot it, stone dead. Though of course you would die soon enough, even if you remembered it, along with the other 999,999 things, which was impossible. You would die soon enough, along with all the people you blew or who blew you, and so all life could be was a brief groping at the far-off stars, a churning of legs in the air, and the stars don't care, and nobody cares, but you do it anyway, why not, because you're Jim Hubbard, you're susceptible to peer pressure, or maybe you're brave.