Mike Hantman lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University and is currently teaching and writing. In his free time, Mike can be found hiking with his dog Jayne or hanging out with family and friends.
The Trials of St. Clarice
This all started after class. I followed Clarice up to a spot on the hill where we collapsed and she smoked cigarettes. St. Clarice. At least when you know that you can’t really understand someone, you can begin to appreciate them as something different. Not a partner, per se, but a deep indulgence. You can take them in on your own terms without worrying about the connections, or the pleasantries.
St. Clarice pointed her chin up and blew thin veils of smoke in front of her eyes. She puffed her cheeks erratically and stared at clouds. She’d lie down on her back with her knees bent, and she’d let her ass slide down the hill towards her feet. Her skirt would get bunched up and if you made the effort to look, you could see the tip of her panties. I didn’t. Just out of the corner of my eyes. She wouldn’t even care, she’d react but it wouldn’t carry any weight. Still it might lead to other things. Maybe.
“Everything is totally random. The style barks at you – you can’t watch without feeling that you’re being sucked into someone’s ego.”
She was talking about Godard’s Bande A Part. Cinema. French New Wave. The way the post- modernist movement was marred by the sheer dramatic effort against conventionalities. The random moments which notoriously clipped through these projects carried explanation outside of the feeling of the films.
I turned my head and looked at her through the blades of grass surrounding us.
“So you’re hesitant about this stuff, huh?”
“It’s not so much hesitant,” she said. “I mean this one wasn’t so abstract, like maybe this was Godard before he got really Godardy, y’know. There’s not all that over the top experimental stuff, aside from the minute of silence and the dancing thing and some of the narration. But there’s still just that surreal quality in it, in the way they move and act - like the fake shootout Billy the Kid thing, or where they run through the Louvre or when they keep switching seats.”
I had the feeling Clarice was at the beginning of a sort of love affair with this New Wave stuff. She was being cautious though. She had been hurt, duped before by the likes of Burton, Spielberg, and Hughes, all when she was younger. She couldn’t just go into something that moved her, she had to test it first, make sure it held some water. So she was tearing this stuff apart before it consumed her.
“I think you like it,” I said, being surprisingly casual about the whole thing. She turned her head towards me, meeting my eyes with hers.
“Yeah?” she said. “I dunno, maybe.”
She rolled on her side and propped her head up with her elbow on the ground. “What do you think about it?”
“I like the dancing,” I said.
She smiled. It seemed like she was in the middle of some thought, which she soon abandoned, sighing and putting out her cigarette. She rolled to her side and sunk her head into my shoulder, mulling around for a while. Then she slowly rolled on top of me, and started to kiss me lightly on the lips. I didn’t really react to it at first. For a second it became something deeper, but just as I began to apply some pressure of my own she rolled off of me and back onto the grass.
“Ok,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Just, it was interesting,” she said. “Something interesting.”
And that was Claire. That was part of her, a piece that always sticks out in my mind. I don’t know where I’m going with this. The whole thing just exists in my head, but I come back to Claire and all this shit with her and I don’t know how to tell it. There’s a story in there that makes me look good and makes her look like some sort of bitch but I think it misses the point. It falls victim to her notion of just telling the story the way you or the crowd or whoever wants it to be told and not something else, something that may have actually occurred. And if it didn’t occur then it existed, in me at least. And it’s hard to dig through this stuff and know what was really happening, what I was thinking and what parts of me reacted to whatever happened. But I’m going to try and make some sense of it, even though I don’t fully know why I want to, why I want to dredge up this old shit that seems like it wasn’t particularly important in the long run, like a blip on the screen.
And I’m also not sure, exactly, in trying to remember all this, where I came in on what emotions. That is to say, it’s hard to know when exactly I felt what about Clarice, when it began to change, and so on. When I was detached and when I was enamored. These things change in little microscopic spurts that I couldn’t, or at least haven’t, not having the foresight to know I would be trying to recall these events in detail, been able to record or remember. So I just have the events, and the knowledge that I began with a sense of distance, without knowing that I would fall deeply into some sort of enamored state, that none of my early pessimism or practicality would help this unfortunate emotional overhaul, and that it would turn back into distaste, not so much that the emotion dissipated, but rather, it turned into a thing I could no longer stand, too awkward, embarrassing and perhaps even painful. Just be aware that while all the activity up front is proceeding, behind it there’s this little emotional ballet performing in the back of my mind, driving me through these motions, drawing me from distance to passion and then being overwhelmed by a kind of negativity.
But I’ll get to all that. First let me get into how we met.
I met her halfway through her freshman year, when I was still in the dorms. Ben was my roommate back then and he had been hanging out with this girl Sarah, who was Claire’s roommate. Sarah was cute and bubbly and she seemed to like college so far and made an effort to talk to you and all that stuff. We went down to the Terrace, where most of the freshman lived, to hang out with her and a few of her friends. It’s kind of a thing, there’s always a bunch of freshman drinking and hanging around the dorms before they really get to know anyone else. Older guys see this as opportunity, so there’s usually sophomores and a few juniors going around, talking about their connections. Sarah’s friends were there and a bunch of other kids who had gotten to know each other were there and Claire was there. She had just cut off most of her hair and people were going around, rubbing her head and stuff like that, saying, “St. Clarice shaved her head!”
At some point, Ben and Sarah went into her room and I was left by myself with all these other kids. A group of them were sitting around in the lounge, moving from room to room drinking. I didn’t say much during the night, I was mostly drinking by myself, sticking to the corners of rooms, but I must have made an impression on Claire because she kept looking at me with this bewildered look, like something was happening. Anyway, halfway through the night one of her friends comes up to me and tells me to stop making so much noise. It’s an old joke that everybody uses and I can normally see it coming when I’m being kind of quiet. It’s annoying but I smiled anyway and gave a halfhearted apology.
“You’re so quiet,” she said. “Just c’mon, tell me what you’re thinking about.”
“I don’t know,” I said with a polite smile.
“He’s being modest,” Claire said. “I think he has all the answers.” And she smiled at me, and I stepped back into myself for a second.
Later we went out to smoke cigarettes and Claire sat next to me and there was a penetrating silence between us.
“So,” she said, swing her legs back and forth, looking down at the ground. “So, why do they call you Preston?” She looked towards me and took a drag of her cigarette.
“That’s my name,” I said.
“But why do they call you Prestooone?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said. “It’s from this movie from the nineties,” I said.
“Hmm,” she said. “Does it get annoying?”
“I can relate.”
“What’s wrong with your name?” I said.
“Seriously?” she looked me with a hint of self-amusement. “Hello Clarice,” she said in a Hannibal Lector voice.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “But they don’t call you that.”
“No,” she said.
“They call you St. Clarice right?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I took a drag and there was silence between us.
“Why do they call you that?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Just a name.”
“You don’t know?”
She shook her head. One of her friends passed by us and I stopped her for a second.
“Hey,” I said. “Why do they call her St. Clarice?
She tilted her head and gave me a drunken smile. “Because she’s a saint,” she said.
Her friend moved away and Claire took a long drag and turned to me.
“You can just call me Claire if you want to get on my good side,” she said.
“Ok,” I said. “And you don’t have to call me Prestoone,” I said.
“Well I have to call you something.”
“You can just not say it like that,” I said.
“But that’s the problem,” she said. “Your name is too much like your nickname.”
We went on, finishing our cigarettes and talking about my name. She eventually decided to call me Blinky, for my unflinching habit of constantly blinking. For I while I thought there was something between us but later in the night I lost track of her in the crowd. At the end of the night she went and hooked up with this punk rock kid who wore tight jeans and had a Mohawk, so I didn’t really make much of it.
A few nights later Ben and I went to their room to watch a movie. I don’t remember what it was but it was probably Old School or Super Troopers or one of those other movies you watch a thousand times in college. About halfway through Ben and Sarah stepped out, presumably to go up to our room, and me and Claire were left watching whatever was on. Claire asked if I liked it and I said it was alright.
“You don’t have to like it,” she said.
“I mean it’s Ok for what it is but it’s pretty stupid,” she said. “We don’t have to just sit here and wade through the whole thing for no reason.”
“I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Come on,” she said.
“I mean I hate that, don’t you? Don’t you hate it when you say one thing about how Ferris Bueller’s kind of stupid and people look at you like you’re on some crazy rant. Like you’re a buzz kill, or weird, like you just offhandedly mentioned your abortion or something?”
For the record I’m pretty sure she never had an abortion or offhandedly mentioned it to people, but I didn’t have the balls to follow up it up. I knew it was a joke but there’s still that slight curiosity, like why of all things would she say that. It was the way she evoked this thing, this weird curiosity that makes you wonder about her. You either take it or leave it. Love it or hate it.
“You don’t like Ferris Bueller?” I said.
I smiled at her.
“I heard Ben say that you know everything about movies.”
“A little,” I said.
“So then be honest about it. Don’t just give me generic shit about whatever. Like who’s good?”
“Who’s good?” I said.
“Yeah, who do you like?”
“I like Tarantino,” I said.
She bobbed her head around a little, half smiling and half frowning, mulling this over until something seemed to spring into her mind.
“Have you ever seen Chunking Express?” she asked.
“What is it?” I said.
“Wong Car Wai. Tarantino does the introduction for it. It’s like, one of his favorite movies.”
“Ok,” I said.
“You wanna watch it?”
“Sure,” I said.
And she popped it in and it was good. It’s these stories about lonely people, one of them is a cop who gets dumped and eats canned fruit every day until he gets over this girl, the other one’s about a girl who sneaks into this guy’s apartment and cleans it for him.
We didn’t talk much during it, Claire sat in her bed and I was on this chair in the middle of her room, but it felt good. Sarah came back about twenty minutes before it ended and I stuck around to see the end, despite heavy signals that she wanted me to leave. After it was over, I told Claire it was good and she said she thought I would like it. And then I took off.
We hung out a few times after that and she always held me to my shit when we talked about movies, which was fun in a way. We’d have our own isolated, uncool conversations while other people talked about parties and drugs and things like that. It wasn’t a long time though before Ben and Sarah stopped hanging out and after that I didn’t see Claire as much. I didn’t really have a reason to I guess. I asked Ben what he thought of her once and he told me that her friends talked endless shit about her when she wasn’t around. It didn’t really set anything off in me though, it seemed like it might have been just a kind of typical college thing.
Still I’d run into her from time to time and we’d talk a little bit. And she’d always call me Blinky, and there was something to that. It gave her a reason to be excited, like she could call it out in the middle of a crowd and it almost seemed to reveal some sort of deep connection to the people around us, and maybe to us to, like an old friendship, even if there wasn’t really any great history behind it. It made it special when we ran into each other, there was this energy to it, this tone and feeling, as if we were into something deeper than typical bullshit, something shared. We didn’t fade into each other’s everyday personas, something came out of us, even if it was just a minor thing, so we never fell apart despite the fact that we had never really been that close to one another.
The next year we had a film class together in the spring and we started to hang out again. By then she started to shorten my nickname. It went from Blinky to Blinks, maybe to B-man, I’m not sure, if that one was in there, I’m pretty sure it was intentionally stupid, stupider, and eventually she settled on B, letting the joke evaporate from the presence of the outside world so it only existed between us.
She had longer hair by then, still shortish, but down to her neck, with a purple strand running through her bangs. And it began to dawn on me that she was quite pretty. There was this genuine enjoyment I felt around her but I still never thought anything serious would happen between us, if anything happened at all.
I used to be prone to this kind of instantaneous falling in love that happens when you become intensely preoccupied with one person for some stupid set of reasons. Y’know, you see a girl reading Slaughterhouse Five in the rain and she has curly hair and boom. That kind of shit. It seemed to either happen or not happen, and it wasn’t really that way with Claire. We just got along. There was this easiness about us, this odd kind of comfort that seems to lead to something which could actually happen more often than the actual head over heels bullshit that people tend to romanticize. So I didn’t really know what I was doing, or what I wanted, but this thing just came over me.
And all of these little traits that she had that might have seemed like imperfections to someone else became perfect to me. She had this perfect casual demeanor, this perfect irritability and this way she could be weird but serious, kind of nice but not fake. She had this small layer of baby fat around her stomach that seemed to compliment her perfectly, and these perfectly round cheeks, they made her seem like she was real, pretty in a human sense.
There was a thing between us, our way of hanging out, and those who didn’t know us thought we were an item. When we hung out, it felt almost like we were going against all the other stuff that usually surrounded us, hype and excitement and all that shit. We’d just exist, we’d just be in a kind of state. We could talk or we could shut the fuck up and simply be around each other and take things in. Like Uma says in Pulp Fiction, you’re really comfortable around someone when you can stop bullshitting and be quiet for five seconds. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain this stuff, it’s hard to impart what it’s like to be around someone, what someone really feels like, because it’s almost separate from what’s communicable. It’s not something you can really tell in a story without getting bullshitty, without talking about some warmth or eyes like flower petals that cut through you or something like that.
So we hung out after class a lot and talked about movies and stuff. I learned what she was into. She liked Jarmusch, Wong Kar Wai, loved Wes Anderson, liked some of Burton’s older stuff but she was beyond him now. She hated Spielberg, hated Camron, couldn’t stand Titanic. She was surprisingly cold on Scorsese, she said he had no center, no emotional core, didn’t like Hitchcock or Coppola all that much and was mixed on Tarantino, though I had tried to bring her around on that. In response, she tried to convince me about Wes Anderson, though less emphatically. Maybe she liked to talk about him, but in some part I think she wanted to win me over. She was especially proud of The Royal Tennenbaums, which we watched in her dorm after coming down slightly from all the surrealist stuff.
I’m not sure she wanted something else. What we did was have these conversations about whatever unimportant thing floated around us and we attached ourselves to them. She came out by bullshitting, by giving me her secret opinions about nothing and I grew towards that. She didn’t really pull punches, I don’t think, but when I look back at her, I see her wincing, almost hurt by my caustic little opinions and I feel some regret, but I feel regret about everything so who knows.
Later that night I went to a club and was bored. It seemed like there was nothing going on there. I stood in a corner and drank and waited to leave. After we left the club, we went back to the dorms to hang around with a few kids, we drank more and a few guys smoked some weed. I walked around Claire’s hallway a little bit and then went back to hang around with some of the guys who lived on the same floor. Around four I walked back to Claire’s room and saw her standing in the hall with a couple of her friends.
“It’s Blinky! B!” she said with a drunken slur, and she came over to hug me. She seemed happy to see me and I was happy because of that, though it probably would have been tampered if I knew where she had been that night.
“Come on,” she said. “Hang out with me.”
We went into her room and she stumbled around.
“So tell me about things,” she said happily.
“They’re fine,” I said.
I was pretty drunk myself but I wasn’t stumbling drunk like her. I don’t get that way much, I was just sort of out of myself, being carried along by whatever.
“How was the club?” she asked.
“It was shitty,” I said.
“Aaamazing,” she said. She laughed a bit to herself.
“C’mon,” she said. “We can watch a movie.”
“We can watch, umm, I don’t know, let’s not do any surrealist shit. Too surreal. We can just watch something stupid,” she said. “Jill, Um, Jilly has a bunch of dumb shit. She has Old School, and Mallrats.”
“So like, “I said. “Like really good movies.”
“Or she has a bunch of John Hughes shit!” she said. “She has Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller and all that shit!”
“I know you like Ferris Bueller,” I said.
“Fucking Ferris Bueller!” she said. “Fuck that, let’s watch Breakfast Club.
She put it on and I sat down to watch it, even though I was drunk and tired and out of it and I didn’t really want to watch a movie right then.
“You can sit on the bed with me,” she said. “You’re always on the chair, you can move up here if you want, it’s more comfortable.”
So I did. I lay down next to her and we watched the movie and slept together. We didn’t sleep together, we didn’t fuck, but I passed out in a kind of prone position and she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and her arms curled around me.
There’s some quote or something, I don’t remember it, but I heard it and it made me think of this, about how sleeping, actually sleeping with someone is the most intimate experience you can have. It’s definitely not the best experience, not the most fulfilling or anything, but maybe because of that it makes you feel something. All your stuff is in check and you resign yourself to just lying there and saying, “Fuck it, this is fine. You’re fine.” It leaves you with weirdness too, as if you had hooked up or something, only it might actually be weirder because you’re still not clear about just what happened. What anything meant. You don’t know what was affection and what wasn’t, what type of thing this or that was.
The next morning we woke up and her roommate was there. It was pretty awkward, she smiled at me and asked me how I was. There was an avoidance of my presence in her room, either because she didn’t want to pry into things when I was there or because she seemed so sure that nothing had happened. I said I was good and she looked at me with these sort of mournful, pitying eyes. Claire and I didn’t talk that much and I left without really saying anything particular, I wasn’t sure if there was anything I was supposed to say or not, anything that might have made some sort of good statement instead of just being weird or something.
We didn’t see each other the rest of that week. I didn’t stop by her room and she didn’t call me. I got on with things. I started to think about what I would say to her when I saw her, if I should say anything, if there was anything worth saying. I wasn’t sure if this was one of those things where you have to suck up and be a man, that kind of thing, take the hit if it’s coming, or if it was one of those things where you can’t stop yourself from doing something stupid, something you convince yourself is a good idea that in reality isn’t. Ultimately it didn’t matter either way, things ended up resolving themselves.
On Saturday I went to this party at a frat house. It wasn’t really a big party, there were enough people there but it wasn’t huge or anything. I wandered around the house when I got there, then got drunk in the kitchen with these kids Mitch and Dan, they talked about jam bands and did shots and then we parted ways. I walked through the halls and I saw Claire, kind of surprising, standing next to this big guy with black hair. She looked at me and waved and I waved back, and then I stood there for a few second before I decided I had to leave her point of focus. I grabbed another beer from the kitchen and drank half of it by myself and then convinced myself to go back out into the hallway. I walked around a bit, glancing towards Claire and the guy a few times and she caught my eyes. She tilted her head and smiled and waved me over.
“This is Blinky,” she said to the guy after I had ambled my way over and was standing on the side of him and Claire.
“Blinky?” he said.
“I call him Blinky,” she said. “Or Blinks, or B for short.” She took a sip of her beer and brushed some of her hair back.
“Why is he Blinky?” he said.
“Because,” she said turning towards me, “Look at him, he can’t stop blinking. Look he just did it!”
“Preston,” I said to the guy and nodded.
“He just did it again,” she said.
“I’m Blake,” he said before turning back to Claire.
“Blake takes a lot of film lit too. He was telling me about Raging Bull.”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s never seen it, which is fucking ridiculous for someone doing film studies.”
“She’s not really into Scorcese,” I said.
She bobbed her head around. “I don’t know,” she said. “I mean he can be alright.”
“You’ve gotta see it,” he said. “The way he shoots it. And DeNiro in it, he’s ridiculous. He’s just, I can’t describe it, you’ve seen it right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How would you describe DeNiro in it?”
“He’s raging,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s right, he’s just like this guy who’s always enraged. He’s raging, he’s like this raging…”
“Bull?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s like a raging bull. That’s it.”
I shot a calm, cold and derisive look at Claire. She took it in and then shook it off, smiling again. Then Claire wrapped her arms around him, leaned upward, her head slightly tilted, and kissed Blake with such passion that I started to look away, but couldn’t. She untangled herself from Blake and said, “We’re gonna watch it. You can come if you want.”
“Yeah man,” he said. “You should hang out.”
I looked around at the two of them, his smile and her kind of nonchalant calmness.
“I’m alright,” I said. “I’ve seen it.”
Claire tilted her head down in a kind of pitying way.
Part of me wanted to go along, like it would be harmless or something, but it was a part of me that I didn’t want to indulge, all insecurity and passive aggressive obsession. I felt like I wasn’t part of what was happening, a third wheel - I would have just gone along to cock block Blake and it would have just built up resentment, not from him, I didn’t give a shit about him, but from Claire, like she would have seen me for what I was.
I felt like shit and I wandered around the party for a while longer, had a few more beers and then hung around outside, on the edge of a group of people but basically by myself. I kept thinking I’d see Claire and Blake heading out, I wanted to see that, but I never caught a glimpse. By the time I went back in the house, I didn’t see them anywhere and I left pretty soon after that.
That week I skipped class. The week after I went but she wasn’t there, I don’t really know why. The third week we saw each other and there was some sort of warmness between us, but something was gone, or something new was between us, some invisible thing that we couldn’t talk about even if we knew what it was.
Not to get all Annie Hall on you, but I did see her one more time the next year. I probably saw her more than that, I definitely did, but there was one more time I really remember. It was outside of the main hall on campus, I had a class and I ran into her on my way there. She was standing outside, she looked pretty much the same except the streak in her hair was gone, and she said, “Holy shit, Blinky!” in a calm tone. She hugged me and smiled and acted really nice towards me, asked me how my year was going and what I was taking and all that stuff. I asked her the same stuff and it was a nice conversation but it still felt more like I was catching up to someone then reconnecting really. After a while I told her I had to get to class and she smiled and nodded.
“It’s good to see you,” she said. “You should call me or we should hang out or something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’d be great.”
And that was pretty much it.
I haven’t really heard much about her since then. I’ve tried to look her up on Facebook but nothing came up, I doubt she has a page, it doesn’t really seem like her. I heard from Ben that she might have gotten married, so maybe that’s why she doesn’t come up but who knows? He’s told me a lot of stuff that’s turned out not to be true. I don’t know why all this stuff has churned up in me recently, why I’m thinking about her now. I watched the Darjeeling Limited, one of Wes Anderson’s new films, a couple of months ago and it made me think of her. I was curious what her opinion might be, how she’d react to what seems like it might have been his most human endeavor yet, maybe not in terms of style but content. Most people put it aside but she might have found something special in it.
I don’t know why I went through this whole thing, why I wanted to, but I did. It seems like I had a love story on my hands, even if it wasn’t about love overcoming things or people coming together despite odds or anything like that. Maybe it’s more like what first love can do to you, or how hard it is to get something right if you encounter it, or how hard it is to even know if something was there at all. I’m past the statute of limitations on really caring but it still hangs around, a thread in my subconscious that wonders about it. There are times when I feel like I almost miss her, before I realize how stupid that seems. There are more times when I’m just sure that I didn’t really know her, or that I just knew a part of her, and she knew a part of me, and both of those parts where things we each specifically created for each other.
Over the past few years I think I’ve done a lot to find myself, if only in a circuitous way, for all the good it’s done. I’m not sure if you can ever really find yourself as yourself, but sometimes you find a reflection in other people and maybe that does something, I don’t know. I went out with a girl a few weeks ago, maybe months actually, and it seemed pleasant but vacant. That’s how it seems more often than not nowadays, pleasant but vacant. I gave her a bunch of stories from my past, a careful summation of myself, and she did the same, but there’s just the feeling that nothing new comes across, we could have just as easily been a thousand other people telling the same stories. And so you think back on this person you were, and wonder if you ever really were that person, or how much of that person is you, and for all the flaws you have in your past iteration you wish you could get to know it a little better, just to know what the hell brought you to wherever you are, and you wonder if some version of yourself isn’t floating around in someone else’s mind, affecting them in some way, drawing one thing into another.