This story is told in the second person by a character named Rob. While hanging out at a friend’s house, Rob listens to his friend Drew talk about being president one day. He looks at Drew through layers of hash smoke in the sun. Drew’s arm is around Sasha. Rob admires Drew’s body, which is healthy because of his love of swimming. Rob tells Drew not to try and say he didn’t inhale, and everyone laughs. Rob feels like a funny guy, but then worries that people laughed because they are afraid he will jump out of the window and kill himself.
The second-person point of view in this story is a stylistic depiction of Rob’s disconnection from himself and others. He is also self-conscious, as shown through his concern about his friends’ laughter. Drew, on the other hand, is confident, and looks toward the future with high aspirations. The joke about not inhaling marijuana is a reference to a famous comment from President Bill Clinton.
Rob feels paranoid. He worries that Drew is mocking him, but Drew is sincere. Last fall, Drew stood in Washington Square passing out leaflets to get students to register to vote. Rob helped Drew hand out pamphlets, but didn’t register to vote himself. Nobody, not even Sasha, knows that he never voted for Bill Clinton. He keeps it a secret.
Rob’s paranoia and self-consciousness is reflected in his concern that Drew is mocking him. The fact that he doesn’t vote perhaps suggests that he doesn’t feel his voice is important, or else a fundamental apathy about the world.
Drew gives Sasha a kiss. Rob knows Drew feels horny because he feels it too. He used to get into fights in high school when he felt this way because it relieved the tension. Nobody will fight him now, though, because he slit his wrists with a box cutter three months ago, and people are too worried about him. People have been treating him differently, smiling whenever they see him.
Rob clearly struggles with his sexuality, and in the past he expressed this through aggression. Rob’s suicide attempt has had ruinous effects in his relationships and in his life, creating a layer of disconnection between himself and even his closest friends—a kind of disconnection perhaps not so different from that which Jules perceived between celebrities and non-celebrities.
Drew kisses Sasha again, and Rob feels angry. They are at their friends Lizzie and Bix’s house, and it feels too small. The house is full of plants and the smell of plants, and the walls are covered in Bix’s collection of Last Judgment posters that show humans getting separated into good and bad. Rob goes out onto the fire escape, and Sasha joins him, asking what he is doing. It makes her nervous to see Rob out there, but Rob says the worst he would get if he jumped is a broken arm or leg.
Rob feels disconnected from both Sasha and Drew, and seeing them kissing causes him to feel the pain of this disconnection (it’s also suggested that he has complicated romantic feelings for both friends). Sasha’s immediate concern about Rob going on the fire escape shows her genuine concern for him, but also confirms Rob’s theory that his friends are always cautious around him now.
Drew joins Rob on the fire escape and they listen to Lizzie talk to her mom on the phone inside the apartment. Her parents are visiting from Texas and don’t approve that she is dating Bix, who is a black man. Afterward, Lizzie leans out the window, and Rob asks how her bigoted parents are. Lizzie says that he can’t talk that way in her apartment, and she tells Rob, “fuck you,” and Rob returns the insult. He feels good about the reaction he gets from Lizzie, noting that it has been a while. Sasha and Lizzie begin talking about Rob, and he notes to Drew that he loves how they talk about him like he isn’t there, like he is dead.
Lizzie’s parent’s bigoted ideas about race cause more disconnection between Lizzie, Bix, and her parents. Rob is not afraid to speak the truth about them, and he feels good getting an authentic reaction from Lizzie, since people have been acting inauthentically toward him since his suicide attempt.
Rob remembers Drew telling him about his childhood in Wisconsin, where he built a log cabin, hunted, and swam in a lake by his house, even in the winter. When Rob first met Drew, Drew thought Rob must have swum a lot because he grew up in Florida. Rob says he did, even though he doesn’t like water, which is something only Sasha knows about him. Rob goes to the window and looks inside at Bix, who is on his computer, reading messages sent from other graduate students. Bix believes computer messaging is going to be huge in the future.
Rob admires Drew’s upbringing and finds meaning in the authenticity of his experiences. Rob’s dislike of water, which in the novel symbolically points toward ruin, speaks to his desire for life and redemption—but it also foreshadows his eventual death. Bix finds connection through the use of technology, and correctly predicts that technology will be a primary method of communication in the future.
Bix tells Rob to come inside because Lizzie is stressed out. Inside, Rob apologizes to her, and then says sorry that her mom a bigot, and that Bix are dating a girl from Texas. Rob apologizes that his recent suicide attempt makes her nervous. As he says it, he feels like he is a few feet away from himself, and he notices that the others’ faces have grown sad. He wonders which part of himself is the real one, the part of him saying these things to Lizzie, or the part of him watching from a distance.
Rob acts authentically in this moment by speaking his mind. He is aware of the fact that his suicide attempt has created a distance between himself and those around him, and his disconnection from even himself is reflected in his feeling of being separated from his body.
Rob, Drew, and Sasha walk to Washington Square Park. Rob remembers that while he was recovering from his suicide attempt in Florida, Sasha and Drew went to Washington and watched the sun rise over the Mall the day Bill Clinton was elected. They told him they felt something in the air, but Rob doesn’t feel it. At Washington Square, Drew leaves and Rob feels glad. He is coming down from the hash, which is still new to him. At Freshman orientation, Sasha had picked Rob out because he didn’t do drugs. She needed a fake boyfriend because she was afraid that her stepfather had hired a detective to look out for her. Rob agreed to be her fake boyfriend.
In the novel, sunrises often depict connection and hope between characters, which is the feeling the characters felt in this memory. Rob, however, feels left out of this experience, and also lacks connection and hope. The history between Rob and Sasha depicts both the lack of authentic connection between them, and the way Rob has changed since they first met. By agreeing to be her “fake boyfriend,” Rob agreed to partake in an inauthentic form of relationship.
Rob and Sasha began spending time together after the orientation, and Sasha became increasingly worried about the detective. Rob kissed her in public to throw the detective off. Sasha told Rob that they needed to tell each other something that would make it impossible for them to really go out. Sasha told Rob that she started shoplifting at thirteen, and became addicted to it. Later, in Naples, she stole things and sold them to a man. She then began having sex with the older man and still taking money from him, telling herself that he was her boyfriend. She told Rob that that person (her past self) wasn’t really her, and she feels sorry for whoever that was. Rob tells Sasha about a football teammate whom he’d had sex with, though he does not believe himself to be gay. He wasn’t sure who it was who had sex with the other young man.
As time moved forward, Rob and Sasha’s feelings for each other change from almost comically false to become a more authentic friendship. The fact that they are not in a romantic relationship allows Sasha to be more honest and authentic with Rob than she is with most people, and so she reveals a dark secret of her past—that she essentially worked as a prostitute in Naples. Rob shares honestly about his sexuality with Sasha as well, feeling the same disconnect from his past self as she does.
Rob and Sasha spend some time in the library, where Sasha writes a paper for one of the six classes she is taking to try and graduate in three years. She is an older student, and feels behind. She is majoring in music and business. After she finishes, they walk to Sasha’s apartment. The mood of Sasha’s roommates seems to shift when Rob arrives. They go to Sasha’s room, which is empty besides a rented harp she is learning to play. Rob lies on the bed, and Sasha takes a shower, returning quickly, Rob suspects, because she doesn’t want to leave him alone. He remembers spending the night in Sasha’s room, and holding her while she cried. Rob knows everything about Sasha, the particularities of her body, and everyone believed they were dating. The biggest regret of Rob’s life is not sleeping with Sasha. It was especially hard on Rob when Sasha started dating Drew.
Sasha’s lifestyle before school had ruinous consequences, and home in the U.S. now, she is seeking redemption. Rob is now also seeking redemption after his suicide attempt, though the reactions from those around him are a reminder of the damage it has caused. His memory of holding Sasha is one of connection, and his intimacy with her body confirms this. Their connection is authentic, despite the fact that they are only friends, though Sasha’s relationship with Drew causes Rob to feel distant and resentful. Rob’s regret is rooted in memory, and because time only moves forward, he despairs his lack of action in the past.
After ten o’clock, Rob and Sasha meet Drew on Third Avenue and Saint Marks. Drew kisses her, and Rob wonders why Drew has been able to help Sasha start her life over again, when he was unable to do the same. Rob wonders again what Sasha felt like watching the sun rise in Washington D.C., and whether other people felt it too. They arrive at the Pyramid Club, where they are going to see the Conduits play a concert. Rob offers Drew and Sasha ecstasy pills. Drew wants to do the ecstasy with Sasha, but she has quit doing drugs. Rob takes one of the pills and puts the rest back in his pocket.
Rob reads meaning into Sasha and Drew’s relationship, believing that Drew possesses a power to help Sasha that Rob fundamentally lacks. The Conduits are Bennie Salazar’s band, and interestingly, a conduit is a channel that typically carries water, which is a symbol in the novel often connected to ruin. The fact that Sasha has quit doing drugs suggests she is more experienced than Rob and Drew, and trying hard to find redemption after a difficult period in her life.
As the Conduits play their concert, Rob stands in the back and watches Drew and Sasha close to the stage. He wishes Drew were his brother, wishing they could have built a log cabin together and slept inside. He wishes he could have killed an elk with Drew, and danced naked around a fire. He feels if he could see Drew naked, even once, it would ease the deep pressure he feels inside of himself. As Bosco (the guitarist) crowd surfs overhead, Drew spots Rob and pushes his way back to him. Rob shoves one of the pills into Drew’s hand.
Rob’s separation from Drew and Sasha in the club speaks to his lack of connection in a larger sense. Behind Rob’s desire to be more like Drew is also a desire for intimacy with him, as Rob continues to struggle with his sexuality. He gives the pills to Drew in an attempt to create an opportunity for the intimacy he desires.
After the concert, Rob and Drew wait for Sasha outside. They are high on ecstasy, and Sasha says she gets it. Drew tells her not to be mad, and she tells him she is not mad, but bored. She was invited to a party with the Conduit’s producer, Bennie Salazar, but she doesn’t want to take Rob and Drew because they are high. Rob says Drew wants to come with him anyways, and Drew agrees.
Sasha, already jaded by her past experiences with drugs, is merely bored by her friends’ experimentation. She chooses to go with Bennie, who will later become her friend and introduction to the music industry, as the novel depicts in earlier chapters. This Conduits’ concert is the two characters’ first moment of connection.
Later, Rob and Drew sit in another part of the city, and Rob says he feels bad about leaving Sasha. Drew tells him not to worry, but Rob remembers Sasha coming to visit him at the hospital after his suicide attempt. She had climbed into bed with him and held him. She had found him after the suicide attempt, and the doctor had told her if she’d been ten minutes later, he would have died. Sasha told him that in Naples, there were kids who were hopeless, but there were others who she thought still might have a chance. She believed that she and Rob were survivors. She made him promise he would never attempt suicide again, and he did, truly believing he would not break his promise.
Rob’s guilt and Drew’s subsequent response confirms that, though they are not romantically involved, Rob shares a deep connection with Sasha. Her love for him is reflected in her presence in the hospital. Her comment about being survivors reflects her belief in and hope for redemption, and Rob’s promise suggests that her presence and words have given him hope that he will be able to find it.
Later, they meet Bix, and Rob gives him the final ecstasy pill. Bix has been walking around for hours because the janitor kicked him out of the lab, and he can’t go home because Lizzie’s parents are in town. Rob feels like going home, but Bix tells him he can’t because he is “central to the action.” Drew agrees, slinging his arm around Rob’s shoulders, and telling him that he is their aching, pounding heart. They go to an after-hours club, and Rob dances with a girl who wants to go home with him, but eventually she gets bored at his lack of response and leaves.
Bix’s experience of disconnection is rooted in his racial identity. Bix’s comment about Rob being the center of the action offers a different view of Rob than the perspectives of others (including Rob himself), and when Drew wraps his arm around Rob they seem to share an authentic moment of connection.
After the club, Rob, Drew, and Bix eat breakfast, and then go to the East River. The sun is rising, and Drew says he wishes he could swim in the water. He says they should remember this moment, even when they don’t know each other anymore. Rob imagines himself looking back from the future, and feels a swell of movement pushing him toward the future. Bix says they will know each other forever, since the days of losing touch are almost gone. Bix says he imagines it like Judgment Day, when everyone will rise out of his or her bodies and meet someplace else where you never lose anyone or get lost. Rob asks if Bix will finally get to meet Lizzie’s parents in that special place, and Bix laughs, saying maybe that part will never change, but he hopes it does. With that, he says he’d better get home, and leaves.
The sunrise over the river echoes the sunrise Drew and Sasha shared in D.C., and Rob’s thought of looking back on this moment from the future suggests a kind of hope that he will survive. The presence of water, however, foregrounds the impending ruin of these relationships. Bix, who is involved in the development of the internet, believes that connection will become easier in the digital age. The disconnection from the body he mentions speaks to the idea that identities will exist in an extra-physical realm, which in a sense is true on the internet. He understands, however, that certain elements of American culture, such as racism, will not be overcome through a technological revolution.
Rob and Drew walk together along the river, smoking a joint. Rob tells Drew he wishes they could live in a cabin together in Wisconsin. Drew says he would miss Sasha, and Rob tells him he doesn’t really know her, that Drew doesn’t know who he would really be missing. Drew asks what he means, and Rob tells him that Sasha was a hooker in Naples. Drew gets insulted, but Rob says to ask her about the man in Naples. They start walking again, and Rob feels terrible about what he has said. Eventually Drew turns and tells Rob he is an asshole.
Rob seeks a moment of connection with Drew, but Drew turns his attention to Sasha. This angers Rob, and he reveals his deep knowledge of Sasha’s past, using this as a kind of weapon against Drew.
Drew tells Rob to leave him alone, and goes down to the river’s edge to a beach made entirely out of garbage. Rob follows him, and Drew begins to undress. Rob looks at Drew’s body, which is as strong and tight as he had imagined, though he finds it thinner than he expected. He feels a faint appreciation for the beauty and inelegance of a man undressing. At the water’s edge, Drew looks back and tells Rob he has always wanted to do this. Drew dives into the water.
The garbage on the beach speaks symbolically to the ruin these characters must navigate in their lives. Rob has put Drew on a pedestal, believing Drew’s experience is superior to his (which is why he got Sasha), but in this moment he also sees that Drew is thinner than he expected, suggesting how ideas of others’ identities are often distorted.
Rob moves to the edge of the water and undresses. He feels if he can master his fear it will mean something important. Rob jumps in and hits his knee hard on something below the surface. He swims quickly to get away from the garbage, which he imagines reaching up and slashing his genitals and feet. Rob yells to Drew, asking how they will get out, and Drew tells him they will get out the way they got in. Rob is struck by the beauty of the city around him, but realizes suddenly that the shore is far away and he can’t find Drew. In the distance, he hears Drew calling out to him, but when he tries to call back his voice seems small.
Rob is seeking to find authenticity, and he believes he will find meaning in his life by facing his fear of the water. The water takes on an ominous nature as he swims out, and the image of slashing his genitals is perhaps connected to his struggle with his sexuality. The moment of beauty after swimming through the garbage rings of redemption, though it is tragically short-lived.
Rob flails, knowing he is not supposed to panic. His mind pulls away, and he imagines slipping from Sasha’s window, past the stolen objects on her sill. He sees her asleep in her bed, and imagines saying sorry to her, telling her that he believes in her, that he will always protect her, that he will never leave her, and that he will be curled around her heart for the rest of her live. The narrative voice switches from the second person to the first person (Rob refers to himself as “me” instead of “you” in this moment). The current pulls him under, and he hears Sasha screaming into his face: Fight! Fight! Fight!
Rob disassociates from his body, speaking to the disconnection from himself he has struggled with throughout the story. In this state, he returns to Sasha, the one person with whom he has felt true connection. His comments echo those Sasha said to him in the hospital, and though he gives up fighting, he continues to hold onto the idea that she at least will find redemption. The switch into first person suggests Rob’s reconnection and acceptance of his identity in his final moments of life.