When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart's most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment's time ruined everything I loved - I loved so deeply, and when the love was interrupted, when the incorporeal body of love shrank back in terror and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new could suffer so irrevocably. But now, years have passed and the night of August 12, 1967, still divides my life.
It was a hot, dense Chicago night. There were no clouds, no stars, no moon. The lawns looked black and the trees looked blacker; the headlights of the cars made me think of those brave lights the miners wear, up and down the choking shaft. And on that thick and ordinary August night, I set fire to a house inside of which were the people I adored more than anyone else in the world, and whose home I valued more than the home of my parents.
Before I set fire to their house I was hidden on their big wooden semicircular porch, peering into their window. I was in a state of grief. It was the agitated, snarling grief of a boy whose long rapturous story has not been understood. My feelings were raw and tender, and I watched the Butterfields through the weave of their curtains with tears of true and helpless longing in my eyes. I could see (and love) that perfect family while they went on and on with their evening without seeing me.
It was a Saturday night and they were together. Ann and her husband, Hugh, sat in front of the empty fireplace, on the bare pumpkin pine floor. (How I admired them for leaving their good wooden floors uncovered.) Ann and Hugh, sitting close, paged through an art book, turning the pages with extraordinary slowness and care. They seemed enraptured with each other that night. At times, their relationship seemed one perennial courtship; hesitant, impassioned, never at rest. They seldom took each other for granted and I had never seen married people whose moments of closeness had such an aura of triumph and relief.
Keith Butterfield, my age, the oldest son, and whose passing curiosity in me had been my original admittance into the Butterfield household, also sat on the floor, not far from his parents, where he fussed with the innards of a stereo receiver he was building. Keith, too, seemed to be moving slower than normal, and I wondered if I was seeing them all through the gummy agony of a dream. Keith looked to be exactly what he was: the smartest boy in Hyde Park High School. Keith couldn't help learning things. He could go to a Russian movie and even as he concentrated on the subtitles he'd be picking up twenty or thirty Russian words. He couldn't touch a wristwatch without wanting to take it apart; he couldn't glance at a menu without memorizing it. Pale, with round eyeglasses and unruly hair, in blue jeans, black undershirt, and beatnik-y sandals, Keith laid his hands on the spread-out parts of the stereo, as if he wanted not to build it but to cure it. Then he picked up a small screwdriver, and looked at the overhead light through the mango-colored plastic handle. He pursed his lips - sometimes Keith looked older than his parents - and then he got up and went upstairs.
Sammy, the younger son, twelve years old, was sprawled out on the couch, naked except for a pair of khaki shorts Blond, bronze, and blue-eyed, his prettiness was almost comically conventional - he looked like the kind of picture little girls tuck into the corner of their mirror. Sammy was somewhat outside the Butterfield mold. In a family that cultivated its sense of idiosyncrasyand its sense of personal uniqueness, Sammy's genius already seemed to be taking the form of profound regularity. Athlete, dancer, paperboy, bloodbrother, and heart throb, Sammy was the least retiring, the least internal Butterfield; we all really did believe, even when he was twelve, that one day Sammy would be President.
And then there was Jade. Curled into an armchair, wearing a loose, old-fashioned blouse and a pair of unflattering shorts that reached almost to the knee. She looked chaste, sleepy, and had the disenfranchised air of a sixteen-year-old girl at home with her family on a Saturday night. I scarcely dared look at her; I thought I might simply hurtle myself through the window and reclaim her as my own. It had been seventeen days since I'd been banished from their home and I tried not to wonder what changes had taken place in my absence. Jade looked at the wall; her face seemed waxy, blank; the nervous knee jiggle was gone - cured by my banishment? - and she sat unnervingly still. She had a clipboard wedged between her narrow hip and the side of the chair, and she held in her hand one of those fat ballpoint pens that have three separate cartridges, a black, a blue, and a red.
I still believe the statement that gives the truest sense of my state of mind that night is that I started the fire so the Butterfields would have to leave their house and confront me. The trouble with excuses, however, is that they become inevitably difficult to believe after they've been used a couple of times. It's like that word game children discover: you repeat a word often enough and it loses all meaning. Foot. Foot. A hundred times foot, until finally what is foot? But even though the truth of my motive has worn a little thin (and through its diaphanous middle I can detect other possible motives), I can still say that indeed the clearest thought I had when I lit the match was that starting a fire on the porch was somehow a better way of rousing the Butterfields from their exclusive evening than a shout from the sidewalk or a stone against the window ...
Excerpted from Endless Loveby Scott Spencer Copyright © 2003 by Scott Spencer
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