After we went to his parents’ Thanksgiving (truffle oil and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, life-well-spent turkey, chocolate bourban pecan pie, chestnut stuffing) we went to my friend Jourdan’s potluck Friendsgiving (three different kinds of cranberry sauce/relish alone), and around 9pm we reluctantly stood to leave her warm, sweet-spiced kitchen for some far away party. The door swung heavy behind us.
I stared petulantly at the windshield wipers as he started the car. “What if . . . we just went back to your place and fell asleep?” I proposed. I often propose this, actually, especially as it gets dark earlier: it’s one reason it either sucks or rules to date me. I am sleepy as hell.
“Yeaaaah,” he stalled. “We could do that. But . . . I think we should go. It’s probably going to be pretty amazing. And I brought my digital recorder for the bonfire.”
I sighed. “Okay. But, I might nap on the way up.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing in to the wilderness.We were on dirt roads and had gotten turned around a few times before we suddenly saw a house, glowing through the trees like an elven palace. Porches were stacked in utilitarian squares, illuminated with bare light bulbs. Everything flickered through rustling leaves.
“That’s the house Damon built. Well, is building. That’s where we’re going.”
The car rumbled around one final bend in the road, and he pulled off to the side, the wheels hovering over a ditch, maybe, or a half-frozen muddy pond, or a half-buried body. I never know what to expect from rural Massachusetts. “You ready for this?” he asked, arching one eyebrow.
The moon was full, glazing surrounding pine trees in a hollow light. In the distance, we could hear drum-playing, screeches of laughter, the pop pop of burning wood. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a nightmare I’d once had. (There are shadows chasing us, don’t look back; never, ever, leave the car!)
“Let’s do it.”
I pulled on my hat, filled my chest with air.
He said “oh, just so you know, everyone here will call me by another name.”
“There’s still goat left, if you want some,” a dude leaning against the garage door said. Raw light flooded out from the room behind him, illuminating the outline of stubble on his cheeks and casting the rest of his face in shadow; he kicked the rocks and dead leaves at his feet, exhaling smoke. I am immediately attracted to people like this, probably because I grew up in the ’90s.
“We missed the goat roast? That’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” he grinned at us, teeth shimmering. “But, the pianos are still in the field, waiting. Hey, have you guys gotten the tour yet?”
And my hand was taken. “Yeah, I’ve been here before — I can show her.”
The house was big and open. Plyboard served as temporary countertops. Couches were covered in sheets, futons neatly tucked into otherwise empty bedrooms, but there was framed art on the walls and an unnecessarily fancy spice rack in the kitchen: everywhere, large windows stared unblinkingly into an empty darkness.
A grand piano burns thusly: first it is relatively unremarkable — beyond the fact that it’s a large, expensive object with some fire around it. A part of you doubts this will even work. Do pianos really burn? Aren’t they too beautiful for that, too holy, or something? Too smothered with toxic paints?
But then, there is a smell of gasoline. The crowd whoops and hollers: flames begin to glide up ebony legs like melting butter. Parents hold up their children to pound on the smoking keys.
PLING PLANG PLING PLING! PLING PLING PLANG!
“We put popcorn in there!” someone cries. “It’s going to be great!”
Mercy, you think. I hope they’re still pointed to the sky.
PLING PLANG PLING PLING! PLING PLING PLANG!
Someone begins to hula hoop, energy levels rise. If you look away for a second you may miss it: the transformation from bonfire to inferno, from party to pilgrimage, pale yellow to paler blue. The keys hiss, the piano has become a hellish grinning harpy, shifting dangerously against the sky. Absinthe green writhes through a cloud of black smoke, and a boy takes his shirt off, gulping lighting fluid to spit it into the air, a torch bursting his breath into brief fire. You love him because it looks dangerous, because there is an atmosphere of loving tonight. The crowd goes wilder, and the drums begin. Everyone is dancing. You back slowly into the field, away from the madness, not because you don’t want to be a part of it too, not because it hasn’t gripped you, but because you just want to see it, for a moment, from a distance. The heat is liquid, solid, monstrous, it rushes in whirlpools and eddies of orange, white and blue. The piano’s row of keys collapses into the ground, rendering the monster jawless, eternally gaping. Everyone cheers.
“Bella,” an older man greeted me as I stared silently into the flames of the upright piano. I was trying not to cry at the moment and wasn’t sure why. It seemed so humbling, so massive: its movements at once violent and serene. “Would you like a souvenir from tonight?”
I turned to him and smiled. “I’d love one.”
He handed me a wooden key, painted in thick black paint, the finish soft and stony, cool to the touch. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“This one was mine,” he said, gesturing to the flames. “I thought I’d grab a few pieces before it was gone.”
“Really? Wow.” We stood there, staring together for a moment. “I heard the grand piano was left out in the rain and ruined. What’s the story on this one? Why are you burning it?”
He was quiet. “You know it’s funny, I didn’t want to. But they convinced me it’d be a big wonderful thing. I mean, I needed to get rid of it anyway, I didn’t have the space for it. But I didn’t want to burn it.” He sighed, shoved his pale hands into coat pockets. “And I tell you what, I regret it now.”
“It still worked, as a piano?”
“Oh sure. I mean, it was a little out of tune. It could have been fixed up. But you know, they were having this party. And they were already burning one piano. So they talked me into it.”
The skeleton lurched, leaned to the side; flames poured like lava into the sky.
He turned to me, said again “I regret it now.”
My date had been dutifully recording the burning wreckage, but he found me now, burrowed into my coat lapels, one hand playing with the piano key in my left pocket, still staring thoughtlessly into the fire. Here’s the thing with anything gigantic: it consumes you. Mountains, oceans, night skies: who needs thoughts in the presence of this?
“My first girlfriend is here!” he whispered. “She and I haven’t talked since we broke up! That was like . . . fifteen years ago! And now we keep making eye contact but we haven’t even said hello!”
“Want me to go punch her in the face?” I offered doubtfully.
“Yeah!” he cried.
He shuffled back into the darkness; I walked closer to the flames for warmth.
Suddenly something cracked; a gun shot — no! The sky filled with gemstones! Fireworks! The fire had found the fireworks! Everyone screamed, oohed and ahhhed. The pianos cackled mercilessly below.
I stood there, next to the fire and explosives, head turned to the sky like a reverent 10-year-old; and then I thought, you know, maybe it would be prudent to be a little farther away. And so, because the night was full of whimsy and anything was allowed, I suddenly started running: pushing past strangers, and sparklers, barreling down the hill.
A few other girls joined me, and we wound up, at the bottom, shrieking and laughing together, and I loved them. “I’m Anna,” one of them smiled, reaching out a hand.
“Oho really!” I said.
My date is a glorious drunk. If you meet him in a few years and he’s an alcoholic you can blame me, because I am forever enabling him, because he’s just so freaking cute when he’s wasted. He is full of wonder and awe, as if he’s seeing the world for the first time, and all he wants to do is dance with you and talk about books and invent names for new cocktails. “This one’s ‘Nectar of Autumn’,” he announced to us, back in the kitchen of Damon’s house.
“Wait, did you just mix wine and tonic and cider?”
“And bourbon!” he cried.
I smiled, enchanted. “Darling, have another. I’ll drive.”
His friend Ben was tall, dark and handsome, and wearing a black opera coat with a burglar hat. I don’t know why women love wool so much, but we do, we freaking love it when you wear wool, it looks so nice with your eyes or your smile or something. “So who are your favorite poets?” he asked. “Who made you start reading again?”
“I love this party,” I said.
“For me it was Frank O’Hara,” he replied.
My date stumbled back to the counter. “I’m going to feed this pumpkin pie to Dylan!” he announced.
I watched him make his way onto the dance floor, where skinny blonde longhaired bearded Dylan had been enthusiastically djing and dancing for what could have been his entire life. My date held the slice of pie over his friend’s head, slowly lowering it into his mouth while they danced. “Huh,” I said to Ben. “Well, that was weirdly hot.”
My date shimmied back, all leather boots. “I think that made Dylan a little uncomfortable. Did you know Famous Author Andre Du*** is downstairs?” he asked. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”
“Yeah!” I said. “You do that!” I turned to someone else. “Seriously, Andre Du*** is in the basement?”
They shrugged. “Yep.”
By the end of the night, children were slumbering in the upstairs hammock. Piles of roasted goat still lay on the counter, and a dish of chocolate truffles had landed, abandoned on the table. Someone was talking about violin-making. The only bottles with anything left in them were tonic water, and bourbon. I poked experimentally at pie remnants, and watched my jovial date, dancing with one of the dogs.
“What if . . .” I said, “we just went back to your place right now and fell asleep?”
“Perfect,” he said, handing me the keys.
The full moon whitewashed us as we stepped outside. Out in the field, we could see a group of shadows huddled with arms outstretched over a pile of glowing embers, the smoke still hovering in the November air. We got into the car and I adjusted the seat and mirrors, felt the key of the regretfully-burned piano in my pocket. I hoped he would fall asleep at my side. I hoped the road would stretch, long and empty and dark, for as long as we needed at the time.