Drew took it upon himself to inform me of his mother’s condition at random times, as though to minimize any possibility of overlong discussion. In the middle of class, he’d reach over, “She’s on an experimental drug and says it makes her smell like garlic”, or “The doctors have cleared her to have carnal relations with dad, but he had some performance issues so they made popcorn instead”, or “She’s seeing a witch doctor, and took a bath of heated moose urine”. And if it weren’t in class, it would be during a movie, Drew’s grip on my hand tightening just enough that I knew what was coming, the strange, silent update delivered into my right ear (it was always the right ear) during a lull in the movie dialogue or as the camera panned over the landscape of some place neither of us ever wanted to go if it existed in this world.
The winter was cold. We picnic-ed in true Drew style, in alcoves of the higher levels of St. Ives, perched under statues of former headmasters, surrounded by bay windows that had frostings of snow much more beautiful and ornate than anything you could do with a can. There, we ate Drew’s version of food, cucumber slices with cheese, carrot medallions, bits of pate, the thickest crackers I’d ever had, double cream with raspberries, smoked salmon mixed with dill and thick yogurt, apple cider squeezed just down the valley.
“You’re a type of vegetarian,” I’d noted once.
“No, I’m a non-cooker,” he’d said in return. “I am never going to cook. Don’t want to learn how. I eat everything as it comes.”
“That means you can’t eat meat,” I’d explained. “Which makes you a type of vegetarian.”
He’d looked up. “You can cook meat for the kids, if you like. Doesn’t bother me. I quite like the smell.”
“Oh, we’re talking about kids, are we?”
“No, we’re talking about vegetarians…”
But it had been too late and I’d ridden him on the subject for some time, until I concluded with, “Did you just ask me to marry you? Well Drew – did you?”
And he’d looked at me, so serious, with those eyes gleaming as though in that moment, he well could have. Under the bay windows, beneath the bald pate of Mr. Ezubiel Henderson Chalmers, the snow falling, the stars no where to be seen, he could have and might even have, and I wonder a great deal about how I might have responded to him. When Drew was present – when he didn’t simply leave – he was always totally present, extremely there in a manner that made him more real than the matter around him, as though he were made of different atoms. We’d stared at each other for a long time, words saturating the air we were breathing, condensing on the windows, leaking out into the corridor and down the wooden staircases until I was sure that the whole of St. Ives knew what was happening.
Later that evening, we’d promised to get together to study math, one of the topics where I was better than him. But his dorm room had been empty. Drew had left. I’d found him in the library, under a lamp on the second-floor balcony, books of equations in front of him, red ink scribbled all over the library’s property. I’d taken the pen out of a shaking hand, and let him lean his head on me until that silent whisper had finally come, the status update that couldn’t be cached in another event this time. Drew had gone home to see his mother the next day, and returned to tell me that she was in good spirits despite the news, but that his father was having a hard time with things, and he would need to go home every weekend now. I’d told him that I would get my father’s car and drive him, and he’d been grateful for that. That had been how I met his dad, a tall, hunched man who always wore a sports jacket and had easily the world class crop of ginger hair.
But I will always remember the day after Drew’s first visit home. I remember it because I’d gone to his room the next day, and he’d simply been gone. He had left. And in his place, in that dorm room, there had been a painting – because he’d always wanted to paint – still dripping wet. In it, there was a purple sky and clouds hovering over a land made of glass, the transparent mass struck through with veins of red liquid that might have been underground rivers; and reaching down through the glass for that red sustenance, silvery trees with limbs carrying leaves like feathers, feather-leaves that reached for the clouds and transmuted their substance into the subterranean vaults of a world that was surely not ours.
And Drew just left. I’d go look for him in the mornings for breakfast, fully prepared for a meal of unprepared food, and not find him in the room. I’d go to class with him, and in the hallway he would just vanish. Or I’d wait for him to come out of the bathroom, but he simply wouldn’t, and later I’d find him in another part of the school, utterly oblivious to the magic in his trick, so nonchalant about it all that I often thought that this must have been a Drew doppelganger, someone he had finally succeeded in raising from the pages of his physics books so that Drew could do all the things he wanted to do or slough off all the things he didn’t want to think about.
“Where do you go, Drew?” I’d asked him.
“Other worlds,” he’d replied.
“That sounds like somewhere I’d like to go, too.”
He’d nodded and taken my hand. It was seldom that Drew thought to show what we were to each other in public, but that day he’d held my hand all the way to class, and not a few times, I caught him looking at me from his seat, as though he had made a mental note and was trying to transmit it to me.
Every time Drew vanished, a painting appeared. Soon, his room was filled with them, a canvas-and-chemical mirage of worlds that just weren’t and simply couldn’t be except that Drew went to them and brought images back of what they were. There were things in them I couldn’t imagine, and can’t now, though I have his paintings downstairs where I look at them all the time. There were black waterfalls, mountains as perfect as pyramids, spires of lava so tall and sharp that they looked like teeth, eruptions of lavender that came from deep cracks in planets that spun about each other as though bound by the colored bands, suns orbiting suns, moons colliding and eating each other in expulsions of mercury. And there were creatures that occupied these worlds too: birds with the snouts of elephants, horned beasts running on six legs, sea creatures that slid their ponderous bulks towards the land and pulled themselves out with arms as though leaving swimming pools. And somehow, Drew created colors, mixtures of tones and shades that seemed as though I could not name them, either that or in fact they were normal but assembled in such odd combinations that the worlds on display seemed eminently far away, even for the strange boy who lived in that room.
And yet there was a logic to the images. Nothing in the paintings made any sense, but all the insensible elements merged to form landscapes that were plausible – if far away – and creatures that were biologically possible – if not locally. I’d often sit on Drew’s bed and hear sulphur winds blowing over the planets, or nebulae erupt into galaxies. I’d smell the emptiness of whirling comets, and the life of green twisty stalks that grew as thick as continents, winding their way around and around as they reached upwards. And I’d see the paintings move, as though these were photographs more than anything else, as though I’d intercepted a trail of evidence for one brief moment, the only one to which I was privy – and that just beyond the golden horizon or across the next pulsar, realities lay unburdened by the smallness of what I could imagine or hope for.
Drew left. The paintings came. And every weekend, I took him home in a German sedan that smelled of cigar smoke, to see a mother who could no longer get out of bed. Drew would give his dad a hug when he got home, now so proficient with this simple mode of human expression – due to the circumstances and my persistence that I wanted to touch him at times – that his dad would start, and inevitably sob for a moment before he hugged me too. Drew would sit on the bed with his mother and they would joke about how bad her face looked, how perfect her fingers would be for a horror movie, how releasing yourself from the sneaky life obligations imposed by head-hair presented that much more time for the other things, the important ones.
Drew left. Paintings came. And in a room filled with public radio and perfume bottles that had never been used, that was overlooked by a forested land and the deep denizens that lurked there, Drew shared his worlds with his mother, bits and pieces that he kept in his pockets for these weekly visits, things that were contraband, proofs that were not exposed to the world where the rest of us lived, elements of incredulity that I suspected had been taken out of those paintings in the dorm room but for which I never had any proof until I saw that bookmark.