My cousin buys pot off this guy named Kirby who has his own condo out in Painesville. Whenever we go over there, he smokes a little with us and we hang around for a bit. The place smells like incense and Taco Bell sauce. There’s a lot of simulated wood grain, and a Pink Floyd poster taped to the wall (the one with all of the naked girls painted like the album covers). He’s got a huge TV with surround sound, and we usually sit in the dark and watch nature documentaries.
The other night we saw this one about moths. Apparently the reason moths are attracted to lights is because they mistake them for the moon. They don’t have a natural sense of direction, and they use the moon as a guide. So a moth thinks that it’s moving somewhere with purpose, but what it’s really doing is circling a light bulb, which will eventually fry its wings off and kill it.
I think we’re all like that in some way or another. Some of us are the moon, some of us are light bulbs, and some of us are moths. It’s just hard to tell which.
Whenever I see a movie with Natalie, I keep the ticket stub and put it in an old shoebox as a souvenir. She’d probably make fun of me if I told her. Part of me thinks that on the inside, she’d be flattered, but even if that were true, I’d never know. I’d just get mocked like I’m some kind of idiot.
Sometimes I think that deep down, when it’s late and the lights are off and the covers are pulled, everyone else thinks more or less like I do, and the rest is just an act. We’re all faking. Other times I think that maybe I’m just weird. Am I the only one who notices that ‘cool’ is just a synonym for ‘cold’? Am I the only one who doesn’t understand any of this?
Today we saw Air Force One. I spent most of the time thinking about holding her hand, or looking at her until she noticed, and then making it look like I was only facing her because I was in the first swing of some neck adjustment. Sometimes the only thing that keeps my leg from pumping like a piston is the sticky theater seats.
I’d already seen the movie with my cousin the weekend before, but when she suggested it, I told her I hadn’t. I’ll take just about any excuse to be around Natalie. She could ask me to go to church and I’d get butterflies in my stomach waiting for Sunday.
We usually go in the afternoons. Movies are cheaper during the day. She picks most of the time. I don’t really care what we see. Sometimes I hope that she goes with something like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Scream 2′; a movie that you’d see on a Saturday night with someone you liked. But she never does. She makes fun of people who would want to see movies like that while we’re looking at the listings. But then like a week later she’ll go see it with some other guy.
The theater is in the mall, and after the movie’s over we usually get Auntie Anne’s pretzels and lemonades and walk around for an hour or so. We always stop in the bookstore and show each other the books that we loved when we were kids. She calls them ‘texts’. It’s always the best part of my week. I try not to let it show.
‘I should not be eating this,’ she says as she chews, a ball of mashed pretzel wadded in her cheek. ‘I need to lose, like, seven pounds.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘Yeah, I do,’ she says, sipping her lemonade. ‘I can barely breathe in my Winter Formal dress.’
‘You have a date yet?’
‘Nope.’ She squirms in her chair and picks at her pretzel. ‘Kelly says Ryan Barkley wants to ask me.’ She crinkles her face and pretends to wretch at the thought of the idea (I’m pretty sure he’ll end up being her date). ‘Who the fuck wants to go to that thing, anyway?’
I do. She does. I mean, wasn’t she just talking about losing weight to fit into the dress she bought specifically for the dance? What’s the point of pretending like you don’t want to go? Who does she think she’s fooling? I always think about saying things like that, but never do. I just nod, maybe mumble something about everything being lame.
‘You look really pretty today.’ I don’t know why I should feel weird or guilty for complimenting someone I care about, but I always do. And she does look really pretty.
‘Yeah, right,’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘I look gross.’
‘Do you really not know that you’re pretty?’ She stops mid chew, her jaw jutting like a cartoon character that’s meant to be angry or dumb. The silence is filled with food court chatter that’s too muddled to make out, except for the guy who offers bourbon chicken samples in broken English. If people in malls aren’t talking about buying or selling something, they’re almost always complaining.
Natalie is the most beautiful girl in our school. I guess that’s just an opinion, but if you looked at the disgusting things guys in our school write about her on the bathroom walls, you’d know I’m not alone in my thinking. She’s a football cheerleader. She gets straight A’s. She’s probably going to be voted Snow Queen this year (it’s between her and the deaf girl). Anytime I come across a thesaurus I haven’t seen before, the first thing I do is try to find a synonym for blue that describes her eyes, but I’ve never found anything that measures up. Imagine the prettiest swirling blue marble you’ve ever seen, except it’s full of a sadness that you can feel if you look at it long enough.
‘What’d you think of the movie?’ She already knows what I think of it. It was a dumb action movie that some rich guy approved because of projected profit margins. I know she feels the same way. She’s trying to avoid the question, and betting that I’ll let her do it. And I will. She knows that.
I think that’s the problem with the world. We’re all betting that no one is going to call us on our obvious bullshit. They usually don’t. The less we’re called out, the more we think we can get away with. The more we think we’re getting away with, the more we’ll push. The more we push, the more we actually get away with. The more we actually get away with, the worse we become. We all end up in some terrifying Mexican standoff we don’t want to be in, but no one will lower their gun until everyone else does.
‘I’ll go to the dance with you.’
She laughs. It’s a fake laugh. If you pay attention, you’ll be surprised to find how much of laughter is completely fake, usually the result of guilt or awkwardness.
‘I’m serious,’ I say, tucking my trembling hands under the table. ‘I mean, you’re always complaining about how ugly and fat you are, and how no one wants to take you to the dance. So…offer’s on the table. I think you’re beautiful and I’d love to go with you. Worst case scenario, you’ve got a fallback.’
What was green lit in the heat of the moment as a bold declaration of love quickly stammered and wilted into ‘if you’re not busy’. There’s a long silence. Both of us know what the other is thinking, yet we’re still afraid to hear it out loud.
‘Dan, you’re like my best friend.’
‘So it would be weird?’ I can’t tell if it’s a statement or a question. I don’t think she can, either.
‘Why? Why is going with your best friend weirder than going with some drunk moron you don’t know who’s trying to bang you?’
‘Don’t,’ she groans, sharply enough to attract the attention of a surrounding table or two. People are always fascinated by and uncomfortable with raw emotion shown in public.
‘You’re the only safe thing in my life, please don’t.’ Her tone is as weary and defeated as one of the women on my aunt’s bowling team. It’s jarring to hear it come from Natalie. She rubs her palm over her face and shakes her head. ‘Besides, I’m pretty sure Lisa wants you to ask her out.’
‘I don’t want to go with Lisa. I want to go with you.’
‘Dan, please. Not now.’ She starts rubbing her temples like a frustrated mother in an aspirin commercial. ‘I’ll be fine. You don’t have to take me to the dance. I-‘
‘I want to. Natalie, I’m in-‘
‘Stop!’ She slams her hand on the table. Everyone turns to stare at us. Her face contorts as she tries to give the appearance that she’s not on the brink of tears. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but…’ Her face goes from peach to hot pepper and the lids of her eyes begin to shimmer. ‘I’m not the idea in your head you think I am. I don’t want to be on your pedestal, and I’m not some perfect answer to your problems.’
‘Natalie, I didn’t-‘
‘Please, Dan,’ she shrieks, gaining the attention of even the bourbon chicken guy. ‘You’re my best friend. Please don’t do this to me.’ She slides out of her chair and walks off, feigning the poise and casualness of a Wednesday shopping trip, but with a stiffness and frantic pace that fools no one. Especially not me. She has to find me eventually. I drove her here in my dad’s Buick. But that’s not the point, I guess.
I just sit there while everyone stares at me. It takes me a minute to get my wits about me, but when I do, the first thing I notice is that the people whispering about me, pointing at me, raising their eyebrows, etc. all most likely think that the dispute was the result of a relationship problem. They assume we’re dating. This crosses my mind before I think to go after her. Only for a split second, but it happens.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe she is an idea marooned on a pedestal. I walk around the mall thinking about that, half-pretending to look for her, but pretty sure I know where I can find her when I’m ready. Before I go looking, I wander around the third floor of Sears for a bit. No one is ever up there and it’s quiet. I replay the conversation twenty-seven times in my head, and there isn’t an angle where I don’t seem like a jerk or an idiot.
Soft rock songs about being sad over a girl – the kind that you’re likely to hear on the third floor of Sears – always seem to be more mocking than sympathetic when you’re actually sad over a girl.
After a while I head back down and duck into the arcade to bum a Newport off Vincent. He slips me one without taking his eyes off of his game. Dusk is starting to set in, and it’s giving Natalie’s eyes a run for their money. Choking down the harsh menthol outside the food court doors, I watch a moth flutter in circles around the hazy glow of a parking lot lamp. Squinting as I stare into the eye of the sulfur glow, I still don’t know if I’m the moth or the moon or the light bulb.
I do know I’m lost.
She’s right where I thought I’d find her, in the back of Borders, camped in front of Oscar Wilde. I’m not sure if this was truly her first instinct, or she wanted me to think it was. Either way, she acts like she’s annoyed that I’ve found her.
‘Thought I’d find you here.’ She laughs. It’s fake. ‘Look, I’m sorry. You’re not an idea in my head, I don’t want you on a pedestal. I’ll take whatever you are. I’m sorry I asked you to the dance.’
‘No…I’m a bitch.’ She sighs and shakes her head. ‘It’s just…look, I know you think you know me, but you don’t.’
‘Yes I do.’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Your second grade teacher was Mrs. Donaldson. Your middle name is Ellen. You think Jerry is the least funny person on Seinfeld. You fish for compliments, but you don’t like it when you get them. Third Eye Blind was playing when you lost your virginity. You-‘
‘Dan, that’s not…’ She grits her teeth and shivers. ‘I hate myself, OK? I make myself throw up. Constantly. I took a month’s worth of Adderall in a week. I go out with guys I know I don’t like, but knowing that doesn’t stop me. I have no tits. I’m afraid of sex. I always-’
‘I can’t run from those things if they’re hidden from me.’ She stops talking, and stares at me with a vacancy that either tells me she gets it, or she’s lost. ‘And if you bring them out, I’ll still love you. Get fat, throw up, whatever. Just try me.’
I still can’t tell what’s going on, but after what seems like forever she smiles, and kisses my on the cheek.
‘Thank you.’ She smiles again. I know it’s a gentle letdown, but as long she kept beaming at me in silence, I’d probably stand there, grinning and trying to figure out what it all means. The store could close and open and close again, and I’d still be there, as long as she was. She shakes her bangs and steadies her warbling face. ‘I mean it…thank you.’
She eventually shrugs her shoulders bashfully and turns to stroll out of the store with a swift purpose, as if we didn’t just share a complicated moment, both of us knowing full well that she’s got to come find me sooner or later.
I’m her ride home.