I’d been staring off into space, an old practice to which I’d returned as my standard pastime, when the elevator bell rang and doors opened revealing three seriously drunk guys who’d gotten an early start on their day’s partying.
“Hey, Patrick!” one of them yelled, pointing at me. I turned to look for my roommate behind me. The guy in the elevator laughed. “No, no — Patrick, it’s me! It’s Hulk!”
I wonder how widely my eyes opened, given that I’d never pulled the eye-widening lever in my head that hard before.
Hulk grinned sloppily, swatting the elevator door open as it optimistically tried to close. One of the other guys slapped his chest. “Dude,” said a voice. “Let’s go.”
I couldn’t believe it. Hulk was — not surprisingly, I guess — a wiry little Jewish-looking guy, nearly a head shorter than me, pale face framed in tight, black, curly hair. But this was in an age before digital cameras, and we had never met. How did he know who I was? What I’d previously thought of as my healthy paranoia turned very dark, very quickly.
I tried to ask him a question, but I couldn’t. My stutter used to manifest most often as a complete inability to begin talking at all. This could be frustrating. Only after the doors closed was I able to ask, “How?!” How did he know it was me? How did he know what I looked like?
I bolted for the end of our long hall — and good lord, do not look into John’s room as you pass, it’s none of your business — and ran down the stairs. Still I wasn’t able to catch the elevator before they all got off.
As far as I know, Hulk and I never saw each other again. Months later, though, after the holiday break, I ran into one of my old pirate friends on campus. It had been long enough by then, and enough else had happened, that I was glad to see him. He’s been a peripheral member of my circle, though I had always liked him.
Hulk, he told me, had gotten pulled out of school by his rich parents before the semester had fully come to a close. Something about drugs — I never heard which — and a grade-point average low enough that it was a mathematic impossibility that he’d have been able to have brought it up enough the following semester to avoid suspension in the spring. So why wait for the inevitable, I guess they figured.
That was something Hulk and I ended up sharing, it turned out: we were both asked to leave the university that year. Don’t worry, I came back and had great-enough grades to make the Dean’s List, graduating well. But those were dark times, then. Even before the hammer fell on me, I heard it falling, which was probably worse than the eventual blow itself.
I don’t remember anything else my pirate pal told me. We wished each other well, and we never saw one another again, either.
If this is you out there reading this, my old friend, I’m sorry I stepped away instead of stepping up.
But that autumn, back when the possibility of being asked to leave school had never occurred to me as an option, after losing Hulk and his friends in the elevator, I returned to my own floor, and here is what I did.
First I got the disk — the last, best double-sided disk: my warez, my philes, my pirate plunder, my booty; everybody’s username and real name and street address and contact number, carefully collected and verified over years. Then I got a magnet, and I ran it over the disk in clean wiping strokes, beginning at the top and progressing down, like a boy mowing a lawn. As I erased the disk, I firmly pushed the entirety of an underground world out of my mind. I imagined a richly patterned sea of ones and zeroes smoothing over into a solitary plane, monstrous in its desolation.
My plan, the one I’d hardly shared with anyone, seemed only more clear to me then, with newly recovered head space into which it could grow further. I knew what I had to do.
I had to code, and I had to dance. Everything else was distraction, and confusion.