Peer Review

Fifty-two weeks later, I packed my brother’s truck with my backpack and camping gear. “You’re gonna look ridiculous in that thing,” he’d said. I smiled. “You have no idea.”

I’d been waiting for hours. That’s how it seemed, at least. Expectation affects the way we perceive time. I’d presented about it at journal club that week. Outside a three-floor, brownstone apartment, I’m waiting for Leigh, who just had to go to the office this morning – even when she’d asked for today MONTHS ago – sooo, I’m a little anxious. But I can’t blame her. It isn’t easy to find transportation upstate. Did I mention it’s a Saturday? Yeah. After working overtime all week, her boss pulled a classic Dr. P and had her run samples before letting her go for the weekend.  Apparently the division of yeast cells on agar mediums is a delicate business. Never mind respect, never mind rules. This is fucking science.

Finally, she bursts out from her apartment, overloaded with bags, but ready. You wouldn’t guess from looking, but Leigh and I strike the rare and delicate balance between work and play. Try finding socially competent girls like us in biomedical research, who live music and know how to unwind. Leigh tosses her stuff in the back, then climbs into the open seat. We share a smile, and nothing else needs to be said.

We drove for hours. I don’t remember how many. We didn’t stop, except for twice: once to use the bathroom, and once for a McFlurry. The road does strange things to a gal. As we cruised, we listened to all our favorite HEADLINER songs. When they were over, we listened to the remixes. Fifty-two weeks, we’d waited for tonight.

-Hey, thanks for driving up with me.
-Are you kidding? You’re the one who’s driving.
-No, I mean thanks for coming out this weekend.
-We knew we were coming back a year ago. You don’t have to say anything.
-But I know how busy things have been, and I know how far back this is going to set us. So, thanks.
-You know how you can say thanks?
-How?
-Breaking out the green!
-Dude!
-What?
-I’m driving.
-I’m not.
-Well, it’s in the glove box.
-Nice.
-It smells delicious.
-Where’s Charmander?
-Under the registration.
-There. I can’t believe you still have this thing.
-It’s a great bowl! Little dirty, maybe.
-Do you want me to crack a window?
-Yeah, but you can light it first.
-Cool.
-Well…
-Oh, that’s nice.
-I guess I could smoke a little.
-Some things never change.
-Some things never change.

The best part about driving high? An hour in traffic becomes an hour rocking out with your girlfriend. We know we’ve arrived because the freeway disappears and in its place are dirt roads and farms. They smell like cows and shit. We drive until a trio of bored cops flag us down. They point to the left. There’s another dirt road I hadn’t noticed before. We thank them, then drive away, giggling.

The road winds through the farmlands and terminates in a line of cars. Awesome. Lines means parking and parking means festival, after about a half-mile hike with all our camping gear. There is a plump, grey-haired lady in khaki shorts. She waves us forward. Her name tag reads “Irma,” and she is clearly high. So are we. She tells us to have fun, girls. More giggling.

Parking is run surprisingly well this year. We cruise through the metallic aisles, directed at each turn by a crew member. The parking zones are all named after festival acts, such as Snaggletooth or DJ BleepBloop. We park in the latter, next to another truck, and a van is waved into the spot next to ours. Getting out of our vehicles, smiles are exchanged with these new friends.

I pop open the trunk. This part is supposed to be easy, because we’ve agreed to limit ourselves only to the essentials. But Leigh’s essentials include her camping stuff, a backpack, and another bag.

-I thought we were packing light.
-This is light.
-You better not ask for help with that second bag.
-Fine, I won’t. But just because you don’t care about being comfortable doesn’t mean I can’t.
-I think we have different definitions of roughing it.
-Yeah, mine means sleeping outside, and yours means denying life’s pleasures.
-Right, that’s exactly what I mean.
-Let’s find some cute guys to carry our stuff.
-All the cute guys are already inside.
-Well, what about those guys in the van?
-Looks like they have their own problems.
-Fine. But can you just grab-
-Shut up.

With Leigh’s two bags and the camping gear, it’s a struggle. This is when I curse myself for forgetting the wagon again. I even laid it outside of the shed, that childhood relic, finally with a use again. Burdened with bags, we follow the migration of luggage towards the checkpoint. This is the worst part, but at least we’re still high. This would suck a lot more if we weren’t high.

Unsurprisingly, security isn’t run so well this year. Ahead, beyond the parking fields, is a giant tent. A slow moving blob of festival-goers trudges towards a single lane entrance, pushing and shoving to get inside. Leigh and I sigh ourselves into a place. A bro, wheeling a cooler, tries to nudge his way ahead of us.

-Dude, don’t touch me.
-Come on, bro.
-What.
-Don’t do that.
-I’m just trying to get to my friends.
-We’re all just trying to get to our friends.
-Don’t be that guy.
-Nobody likes that guy.
-Alright, sheesh, chill.
-There’s a good boy.

Yup, this is the worst part: the pinching and groping forwards. Several similar encounters later, we make it inside. To our dismay, there’s an even bigger cluster-fuck here. Packed like sheep, we are being funneled into a series of lanes. Sort of like an airport, but with aging Dead-Heads instead of TSA. The horde of bodies pinches and gropes for whatever lane seems to be moving the least slowly, and the stupid failures of all the split-second judges clog the arteries of the tent.

-Leigh. I hate this.
-I hate this too.
-This is making me anxious.
-I know. Me too.
-I just want to get inside.
-We’ll be inside soon.
-Crowds make me nervous.
-We’re at a music festival…
-Fuck, I wish we’d smoked more weed.

The camping stuff is getting heavy, so I drop my backpack in front of me and I stack everything else on it. A girl dressed in a leopard-print spandex and obnoxiously drunk for the hour howls as she slobbers over some guy with a beer belly. I hope he’s her boyfriend. When the line staggers forward, I kick my tower of stuff ahead.

-What’s wrong?
-I can’t deal with all these people.
-It’s okay, they’re cool. They’re all here for the same reason as you.
-I know, but right now, I just can’t.
-Look. I get it. This part always sucks. Just take my hand and stay with me. Try to relax. When I get anxious in crowds, and everybody is getting on my nerves, I try to remember that I’m just another person in everyone else’s way. It’s annoying, but we’re all just one more body in the way, we’re all a part of it. It will be over soon.
-I guess.

__________

Eventually we make it through the security checkpoint. Ahead, standing like sweet salvation, is the camping entrance. In reward for our eternal patience, we exchange a tent of bodies for a festival village. Those tents dad used to herd the family into are outhouses compared to these: the only resemblance this field of over-drugged, under-fed hippies has to the concept of “camping” is that both take place outside and involve sleeping bags. There’s no skimping on necessities, no shortage of excess. Friends chip-in to buy the luxurious, labor-intensive homes they will share for the weekend. These are castles of comfort, built for us, and for the next 48 hours, they will be our refuge and community.

Making our way past the entrance, we show the crew ticket-receipts on our smartphones and they hand us our camping passes. We venture into a fenced-off, sprawling rectangular field, filled with amped-up twenty-somethings, all waiting for their weekend. Leigh gets a text that says to follow a fence to the farthest corner. We make our way past the toilets, the showers, the water refill station, the hand-washing/ tooth-brushing post, and through the makeshift city.

The first thing we spot is the flag. Flying proudly above this year’s campsite is a tattered white bedsheet. It reads, SPACE JESUS, in techno-cap letters, printed above the Son of God himself, decked out in Dropshades with a joint hanging out of his mouth. This is our castle, this is our home. And there, waiting for us, are our beautiful friends.

The field bursts with the anticipation of fifty-two weeks: doe-eyed newbies getting glittered up, bros draining Keystone, speakers buzzing with the singles of the summer.

______

It gets dark after HEADLINER’s set. Not long after, it gets cold. Or maybe it was already cold, and we just didn’t realize because we’d been dancing so hard. I begin to regret my outfit decision. By the looks of it, Leigh does, too.

-It’s cold.
-Yeah.
-Would you hate it if we went back to camp to change?
-I was just thinking the same thing.
-Cool.
-We should go soon.
-Let’s go soon.
-No, let’s go now.
-Done.

We tell the others we’ll meet up with them later. They make fun of us, then leave to get food. Leigh and I head from the main stage towards the path back to camp, which runs past the other stages and then through the security checkpoint. The trail snakes up and back down a hill, crossing behind another stage erected at its peak.

As the path gets steeper, we climb and it bends to the right, veering away from the stage and making the hill into an amphitheater, so that standing at the bendiest point of the trail, with your back to the stage, you’re looking into a valley where the path falls towards the security gate. There are dozens, hundreds of people around, and they’re getting tangled up ahead.

Then we look down the hill. On the center stage of our improvised theater, there are two people FUCKING. Facing everyone, he’s got her from behind, propped on her elbows against the hill. He’s meth-skinny, and she’s kind of shaggy. Watching them – fuck! – like that, it wasn’t like porn, with its sexy moves and rock-hard bodies. It was just kind of gross and really sad. These people had absolutely no idea where they were boning. They probably wouldn’t even recognize each other.

I couldn’t tell what the people around me were saying. The crowd continued to mass, just accumulating there, taking pictures with smartphones of the ugly couple in their hideous valley. The people drifted by, took their souvenir, and then went on with their festival. But watching them flop around like that. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

The meth-guy fucks with the intensity of a jackhammer. His eyes burn into her ass. Doggie style, obviously. He seems oblivious to his audience, lost in beastial sex. But that girl, that sad, saggy girl, her mouth just drools open and her eyes roll back in her head, and she gets fucked fucked fucked by that meth-dick.

-Hey, let’s go.
-What?
-Let’s get out of here.
-Coming.

We walked in silence, surrounded by witnesses, who walked with us and had their private conversations in loud huddles. We continue on, down the hill and towards the campsites. The whole way back, I couldn’t stop thinking about those two people fucking. Just here to enjoy their big weekend, they could have been anyone.

-Hey…should we have done something?
-Back there?
-Yeah.
-Well…like what?
-I don’t know.

When we reached the camp, we put on our sweatshirts, and then we sat and smoked a cigarette. The spiraling fumes and soft words we shared were lost in the night. When we finished, we returned to the festival and enjoyed ourselves. And when it ended, we limped back to camp, and I crawled into my sleeping bag. And I thought. About. Fucking.

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