Wisecracks Won’t Make You More Stable

2 Aug

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.’

That’s why.

‘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?’

‘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.

‘What?’

‘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.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘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.

At Least There’s Pretty Lights

21 Apr

It was the first cold night of fall – the one that made you realize that summer was officially gone. A group of us had gathered in the woods behind the cemetery right around dusk to guzzle the forties of malt liquor we had paid a trailer-park drunk to buy us. We passed around a plastic bottle of vodka that Bill Lando had stolen from his mother and smoked Newports purchased from a vending machine in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant. They helped to take away the sting from the vodka, which tasted like rubbing alcohol.

Chris Vincent had gotten some pot from his brother, but I passed on it. He couldn’t roll joints very well so they burned unevenly and little bits of pot always fell out into your mouth. Plus, it was brown and there were seven of us.

A half hour or so before kickoff we trudged our way out of the woods, the leaves crunching beneath our feet and our heads buzzing with the kind of raw intoxication that every alcoholic’s been trying to chase for years. Chris walked backwards in front of us, promising he would call his brother from a payphone and convince him to give us a ride. Bill claimed that if he saw Jared Dawson after the game he was going to fight him. He asked if we would back him up. I said yes, but I didn’t mean it.

Julianne was standing with a friend just behind the strip of yellow paint adorning the curb when we pulled up. As always, she’d looked slightly different than I had been picturing her – her eyes weren’t as blue as I’d remembered and it appeared that she’d caked on some make-up where a blemish had started to form on her forehead.

Chris’ brother drove an old Chevy Beretta, black except for where the paint had peeled back along the edges of the hood, exposing rusted steel. Its trunk housed an expensive stereo system that rattled the car when the bass notes hit. After the last of us had piled out, he shouted ‘Later, homos’, squealing the tires as he left the parking lot. A trail of smoke floated up from the black tracks left behind.

She was wearing a blue windbreaker and tattered designer jeans that flared out just above her sneakers. Her hands were tucked in her back pockets and she blew a couple strands of her bangs upward before noticing me and smiling. I smiled back and followed my friends towards the stadium.

We usually only watched a quarter or so of the game, sometimes a little more if any of our friends got playing time. Most of the games were spent underneath the bleachers, along the rows of concession stands and bathrooms, where everyone gathered to talk about how much they had drank and where they planned to drink afterwards. The general consensus this weekend was that Marty McCann’s parents were out of town, or so that’s what they had all heard. Everyone laughed and complained about whatever they could find to fill conversation – how cold it was, friends that ditched them, the perceived stereotypes of the school we were playing, etc.

We made our way through the various cliques for a while, saying hello and shaking hands like politicians, and ended up on the side of the brick wall behind one of the concession stands to smoke cigarettes. Nobody ever went back there except for Mrs. Larkin, the principal’s secretary, who was always smoking herself, and before she left always did the thing where she zipped her lips shut with her fingers and tossed an imaginary key into air.

Julianne didn’t smoke, but had filtered in with a friend or two who did. She bounced her legs up and down and rubbed her arms and made shivering noises. I tried to make casual transitions from acquaintance to acquaintance, using them as swinging vines to have a reason to be near her. I managed to make my way over to Mark Morris, who stood just to her left, and struck up a conversation about gym class, my stare catching hers every thirty seconds or so. We switched off a couple of times, her staring and me looking away, and vice versa.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘So I hear Marty McCann’s having people over,’ I say, shoving my hands in my pockets. I can hear Bill behind me, the alcohol already warping his words, asking if anyone had seen Jared Dawson.

‘Yeah, I think Lisa and I are going.’

‘Cool, well maybe I’ll see you there.’

Eventually we all shuffled back into the stands and made our way up the bleachers, making a slow procession as we stopped every now and again to say hello to various classmates. We ran into Marty McCann, who reluctantly admitted his parents were out of town.

‘You guys can come…but just you guys,’ he warned. ‘I don’t want to the whole school showing up.’ I was sure he had remarked this at least a dozen or so more times, and was going to be in over his head in a few hours.

In the third quarter, our friend Keith returned an interception for a touchdown, and we stomped on the metal planks and high fived. Bill screamed and thumped his chest like he’d done it himself. Despite the score still being close, we left before the end of the game to fetch the beer Chris had stolen from his neighbor’s garage earlier that afternoon. Marty McCann lived about a fifteen minute walk from the stadium, in a subdivision called Seabury Pines. His father was on the school board and his house always smelled like it was new. Bill led the way, the cubed backpack slung over his shoulder, strutting like a prize fighter, and ranting like rappers do about how great he was, and how fucked up he was, and how badly he was going to fuck up Jared Dawson.

I ran into Julianne while standing in the hallway waiting to use the bathroom and studying the family portrait on the wall. In it, Marty McCann’s hair was slicked with a neat part, the hands of his balding and pudgy father resting firmly on his shoulders. His was wearing a thick, fuzzy sweater and his smile was rather apathetic.

‘So did we win or lose?’

‘You didn’t stay for the whole game?’

‘No, we dipped out to grab some beers we had stashed in the woods.’

‘You guys have beers?’

“Sure, you want one?’

‘Sure.’

I waited around while she was in the bathroom, telling the small group that formed behind me that I wasn’t in line, and once she emerged we migrated into the kitchen. A group of football players, their hair still slick from the shower, sat around a table playing drinking games with a deck of cards. Chris was flirting with Lisa Savola in front of the fridge, his arm rested on a Polaroid of Mr. McCann hoisting up a large fish. I squeezed between the two of them to grab the beers, making sure to talk him up as I passed. Lisa gave Julianne an eyebrow raise.

We found a seat on a couch in the living room – the same couch featured in the McCann family portrait – and drank our beers slowly, half-shouting to each other over the throngs of other conversations bouncing around the room.

‘So you’re friends with Bill Lando and them?’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘That’s cool. I hang out with Lisa and Janessa and all of those girls. It’s…I don’t know, they’re cool.’

‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’

Two of her friends came over, demanding us to check out the basement, where a large group had gathered to dance, an activity I’m certain that Mr. McCann didn’t envision when he’d built his rec room complete with entertainment system and bar. Lined along the walls were framed scorecards and pictures of his friends on the golf course. A metal sign hung above the bar reading ‘A bad day on the course beats a good day at the office’. The room still smelled of fresh carpet.

We danced to a Prince song. I hung my hands limply around her waist, and she tossed hers around my neck. Her skin was sticky with sweat and her perfume smelled like something purple. I fumbled my hands around her body, not quite being able to figure out which areas were off-limits. I could feel an erection swelling.

We continued on like this for a few minutes until it got to the part of the song where Prince starts moaning like he’s having an orgasm, at which point we swayed our arms and legs a bit, just to show that we were in it to the end. Bill, wearing one of Mr. McCann’s novelty golf hats with a big foam ball and tee on the brim, turned off the song, telling everyone that Prince was gay.

The crowd moaned and dispersed a bit, and Julianne and I made our way upstairs to get another beer. I stuck out my hand behind me and she latched onto it. I looked back for a quick second to notice a band aid on knuckle of her index finger. We ran into Chris at the top of the steps, who told us that Jared Dawson had arrived and dashed downstairs to find Bill.

‘Get that fuck out of here’, Bill yelled with a shit-eating grin, slapping Chris’ outstretched palm. We had all piled out into the front lawn to witness the aftermath.

Jared Dawson looked like he might’ve cried if half of his algebra class hadn’t been standing around him. Blood had already begun to pool and blacken inside the pockets of flesh underneath his eye. The skin of his right temple had been scraped raw by the tile floor, a few stray strands of his hair matted to it. He looked like he might say something, gathering his thoughts as he panted, but he just spat some blood into the grass and walked off, having to push off my shoulder to get through the circle.

Bill had wasted no time. There was none of the posturing that normally took place during our high school’s fights. They didn’t spend time circling each other, asking what the other’s problem was or disputing statements made. Bill just bounded up the stairs, tore right past Julianne and I, and knocked him back through the kitchen and up against the fridge. A few magnets and post it notes went flying into the air. Marty McCann rushed in, pleading hysterically and tried to fight his way through the yelling crowd that swallowed them to break things up. I tried to jump up and down and get a glimpse, but all I could hear was Bill’s fist smacking into flesh.

I don’t really even remember why Bill had wanted to fight Jared Dawson. There probably wasn’t any real reason. There never really needed to be with Bill. He may have cited something about an errant comment heard in the hallway, but in all likelihood it was just Friday night and Bill had settled on Jared Dawson.

Jared was good looking and had a driver’s license and a spot on the baseball team; Bill lived in a trailer with an alcoholic mother, paid for his lunch with one of those little green punch cards and rode his bike around town. And he didn’t like that, so in frustration he cleaned his clock. That’s probably as good a guess as any.

‘Goddamnit! Fuck! I am so fucked! You guys have to leave now! Everybody! Out!’ An indignant Marty McCann had been pacing back and forth in the kitchen when the police arrived. He had been holding the jagged remains of his mother’s sugar bowl and ranting on like this for several minutes until his eyes caught the red and blues flashes through the window. His shoulders drooped and his eyes filled with a vacant, weary anguish.

Bill and Chris were the first out the back door, followed by me and Julianne, whom I dragged the first few steps by the arm. A few scattered others trailed behind, pushing at our backs and tripping over our heels as we dashed off into the woods in all different directions, trying to call out to each other in a half-yell, half-whisper for instructions on where to meet.

The four of us ended up crouched behind a pair of large trees, unable to see anything aside from the occasionally sweeping flashlight near the clearing. I breathed as slowly as possible, wondering if she could hear the pounding inside my chest as well as I could.

No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity, until Bill – the veteran in these types of situations – rose and announced that it was probably clear to exit the woods, promising knowledge of a back trail that led towards the interstate. A few others emerged from behind various trees and as a group we began high stepping through the trail over branches, our arms extended for balance, Bill Lando leading the way.

We ended up at the Motel 6 near the interstate. Chris had called his brother on a payphone and gotten him to rent us a couple of rooms with the money we all threw together. Bill had managed to get the tattooed clerk with the black and jagged teeth at the gas station to sell him a couple cases of beer.

It hadn’t taken more than three or four calls for the cavalcade of Honda Civics to come rolling in. Two more rooms across the parking lot were rented, and we picked up where we had left off, oblivious to the agony Marty McCann was probably going through at that moment.

‘I’m really sorry about tonight’ I said to Julianne as we sat next to each other on the itchy maroon and green bedspread, oblivious to the Letterman monologue coming from the television bolted to the wall. ‘Bill’s kind of crazy sometimes.’

‘It’s really not a big deal.’

‘Sometimes I wonder why I hang out with those guys.’ Chris mimicked porno music as Bill pretended to hump the other bed, grunting like a gorilla, everyone around them laughing.

‘I know what you mean.’ She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. ‘My friends are idiots, too.’

‘And yet here we are.’

‘I don’t think it ever stops,’ she said, sipping her beer. ‘You just go from hotel parties to frat parties to dinner parties to retirement parties, and you just have to shrug off the fact that they’re all idiots…we’re all idiots.’

‘I don’t think you’re an idiot.’

‘Thank you,’ she said with a laugh, glancing down at her lap. ‘I don’t think I am, either. But, I mean, I’m still going to mall with Lisa tomorrow, right? I’m going to stand around and nod while she talks shit about everyone and acts like she’s got herself together.’

We didn’t say anything for a while. Letterman threw his pencil at the camera while Paul Shaffer laughed and ran his hand down the piano. I thought about Jared Dawson, and Marty McCann, and all we give up to make it seem like we’re not vulnerable. Bill recounted the fight for the third time for those who just arrived, his bravado rivaling a pro wrestler with a microphone in his face.

‘You remember that poem from Mrs. Stanton’s class?’ she asked. ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you, weep, and you weep alone?’ I think that goes both ways. Like, it’s not cool to be sad, but you can’t be too happy, either. If you’re like, bursting with joy until you can’t contain yourself, people think that’s weird, too.’ She picks at her fingernails. ‘Sometimes I don’t think I really tell my friends anything. By the time I filter it down…it’s a half-truth at best.’

‘I know exactly what you mean.’

‘Enough Breakfast Club over here,’ Bill said, my face flushing with warmth upon realizing he’d been listening. ‘Hit this.’ He thrust a plastic half-pint of bottom shelf whiskey towards us. His eyes were glassy and the cuts on his knuckles were still glistening.

‘Hit it, girl!’ her friend Lisa chirped from across the room, and everyone ooh’ed like a Three’s Company audience. We both took sips from the bottle, and I had to swallow down a little bit of bile.

‘Danny’s a good guy,’ Bill said as Julianne hands him back the bottle, slapping my back. ‘Fuckin’ smart.’ He stumbled off to the bathroom and we smiled at each other.

‘Do you want to get out of here?’

‘Very much so.’

I walked her home, which was about a half a mile down Route 84. We didn’t talk about much – The Barenaked Ladies, our biology teacher’s propensity for scratching at his chest hair, how cold out it was – but I still felt like we were learning things about each other. She kissed me under a streetlight and told me to call her some time. I stood outside until she shut off the bedroom light. On the way back, I tried to reach Chris or Bill from the payphone by the Dairy Mart, but no one picked up. I walked home amidst a disjointed symphony of crickets, the occasional whoosh of a car passing chiming in like a cymbal crash, wondering about the person that she hid from the world.

Think I’m Coming Down

18 Apr

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m waiting for the O’Hare train at Jackson. There’s a guy on the platform dressed like The Tin Man – he’s even got the silver face paint – and he’s doing the robot to the theme from Beverly Hills Cop. He’s going up to people, about a foot away from their faces, and just gyrating to a marimba solo with no shame. And for just one second, I kind of want to be him, because I doubt he’s as heartbroken as I am right now. Or maybe he is. Maybe one day some girl just said, ‘David, it’s over’, and  he said ‘fuck it’ and has been painting his face on Friday nights ever since. Deep down, he probably feels as lonely as I do, maybe even more so, but at least he looks like he’s having fun right now. I drop a dollar in his bucket as the train pulls up.

She meets me on the platform at Damen, standing next to a ‘No Smoking’ sign while taking a drag from her cigarette, headphones plugged into her ears. She doesn’t notice me, and when I touch her shoulder she’s startled a bit.

‘How was your night?’ she asks, yanking the buds from her ears.

‘It was OK. You?’

‘Eh. Went out with a few friends.’ She looks at the wooden planks beneath us and digs the ball of her foot into the ground like she’s grinding out a cigarette. ‘It was pretty lame.’

Those are the last we words we share before taking the train back to her place. We sit together in silence, the same familiar recorded voice droning about policies on solicitation and gambling, and I realize that I’m here because she provides distraction, but that I always manage to get lost in my own head, anyway.

Lying awake in her bed afterwards, all I can think about is The Tin Man. I still feel as lonely as he probably is. And at this moment, I still think I might switch places with him.

I’d rather be crazy than in love.

Slash Prepares To Run To 7-Eleven For Cigarettes At 4 A.M.

15 Apr

Where is it? I could’ve sworn I took it off in the living room. Goddamn it, you don’t need the top hat. The top hat doesn’t define you. You can go places without it. God forbid you lose it one day. Who do you need to impress, anyway? The 7-Eleven guy? The 30-year-old chubby guy with a brow ring who always has to say “Welcome to the jungle!” every time you walk in, as if it were funny the first time. I fucking hate that guy. Did I leave it in the car maybe?

I really need to quit smoking. I should at least cut back. No smoking after 11 p.m., while playing guitar, or during photo shoots. Starting now. After this next pack. It shouldn’t be all that hard. I can do that. Where the hell are my sunglasses?

It’s getting cold, I really should wear a shirt. Every year you say, “Oh, a leather jacket is enough,” and every year you end up sick for a week. He’s going to ask about a reunion again. No, I haven’t talked to Axl since you asked last Wednesday; I have no idea what Duff is up to; yes, “Mr. Brownstone” is about heroin. Now just ring up my cigarettes and let me get the hell out of here. I should just drive to Circle K so I don’t have to deal with that guy.

I should just buy cartons. It would be so much easier. And cheaper. I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s like admitting that I can’t quit. Pack to pack, at least you can promise yourself … Who the hell am I kidding? I’ll never quit.

I wonder if Axl still has the number to that hypnotist that helped him. Maybe I should give him a call. It’s been long enough. Time heals all wounds, right? Just be an adult about it. Call him up, say, “Hey, I’m sorry I walked out of your wedding, I just didn’t really approve at the time, I should’ve kept it to myself, but I was young and all I could think to do was to rip a solo in a sandstorm.” He’d understand. They’re divorced now, anyway. But what if he’s with that guy with the bucket on his head? I’d look like a total loser calling him then.

It’s got to be around here somewhere. You would think I’d have picked up more than one top hat by now. Let’s see—I walked in, took off the scarf, checked my messages, went to the kitchen, poured some Jack. I can distinctly remember wearing it then. Or was I? Did I leave it at Cindy’s?

Get it together, Slash. Think. Maybe I left it in the—oh, man, the bathroom! I’m such an idiot. I spend 20 minutes walking all over the house and I don’t even look in the bathroom once! From now on, it goes on the hook first thing, as soon as I walk in the door. All right, top hat, nose ring, sunglasses … now, where are my keys?

Crush No. 14

14 Apr

I can’t stop humming ‘Raspberry Beret’ in my head. I don’t know why. It’s been three days now. There’s nothing about the song that really suggests Emily, nor have we shared any moments involving it. But something about it – I think it might be the violins – makes me think about her smile.

It’s been awhile since I’ve found myself this far deep into this sort of gooey, seventh-grade infatuation, and to be honest it’s a bit scary. I think I might be getting a little too old to handle the next bit. Or at least I should be. It’s not going to be easy.

I will run into her at a party, and be on edge for every second I am in her presence (actually, even at the mere mention of her name). Every nerve in my body will be buzzing and throbbing. Every cool line I had saved up for the moment will go out the window, and I will stutter and stammer and later on play Monday morning quarterback regarding what I should have said. I will try to work clarifications and corrections into a later conversation, but it will fester inside until that time comes.

I will learn things about her in passing, things like the fact that she isn’t fond of dogs or that she is considering pursuing graduate school. I will nod and take them in without much alarm, but later on that night I will have to scramble to amend the plans I had mapped out for us in my head.

I will Google her name. It will list nothing but the results from a high school track meet she ran in five years ago (2:16.23 in the 800-meter). I will learn from the student directory that her middle name is Madison.

I will hear stories of her past sexual escapades, and will have to laugh passively as if to say ‘Oh, you crazy girl!’ while my guts coil into a queasy knot. I will have to spend at least a few nights lying awake in bed, thinking about her blowing Kenny Conway in a hotel bathroom (Kenny fucking Conway!).

There will be the nights I won’t see her – most nights, actually – which will drag on listlessly. I will sit at the bar and halfheartedly stare at a baseball game I don’t care about, tuning out a friend’s rambling as I ponder the infinite possibilities of what she could be doing. I will go home early because ‘I just don’t feel like drinking’.

I will eventually have to bite the bullet and ask her out. Not one of those things where we meet up amongst friends and talk at a party, but a bold offer for exclusive company, one that will unravel all of the indifferent-yet-intrigued mystique I had worked so hard to build up. I will dial six digits and hang up a few times. I might play a song or two to psyche myself up, maybe even jot down an outline of what I plan to say. If the call goes to voicemail, I will leave a clumsy, fumbling message that carries on far too long.

As I ask there will be an incredible suction pulling at my guts, the kind you feel at the top of the roller coaster or when the road takes an unexpected dip, except much more intense. If she declines that suction feeling will reside for a couple of weeks. Prince will be replaced by Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams and every other sad love song I own.

If she accepts, that will bring up the challenge of The Date. I will have to downplay it, and act cool, showing that I don’t really feel like its The Date, just a date. But it won’t be. I will be up early, making sure I have everything ready – razor, hair gel, cologne. My top caliber shirt – the one with the pointy collars – will have a mysterious stain on it and I will have to rush frantically to the dry cleaners, even though I have ten or so hours to go. I will meticulously scrub every orifice of my body in a half-hour shower that takes every last drop of hot water, and play the Rolling Stones as I get ready, combing my hair into a hundred different never-before-attempted styles before doing it the same way I always have. I will pull sixty dollars from the ATM that afternoon, even though I will probably only need twenty or so. I will arrive ten minutes after I had said I would, just to look careless.

I will backtrack like a politician whenever she disagrees with a stated preference or dislike. ‘Well, I don’t really hate it, but…’ Even the most insignificant shared common interest – a mutual appreciation of The Sopranos or my knowledge of a restaurant in her hometown– will lead me to believe that this girl and I really click. We are two of the same. We match. This is when I decide that we will have two boys, and hope she doesn’t mind Dylan and Lennon. I will try to think of names for girls, but nothing will sound as pretty as Emily.

If I get on the dance floor with her, which will most certainly happen at some point if things go well, I will make an ass out of myself. The cool moves in front of my mirror will suddenly not seem all that cool, and the music won’t be the Prince I had envisioned in my head, but rather something along the lines of ‘Shake Ya Ass’ or ‘Back That Ass Up’. I will have most likely had one too many and just sort of gyrate awkwardly and hang my hands limply around her waist. I will question every move frantically. Should I move closer to her? Rub my crotch against her ass? Is that going too far? What if she thinks I’m prude for not?

When I drop her off at home there will be The Good Night Kiss Debacle. I will say something stupid, like ‘I had fun tonight’, because I can’t think of anything better to say. She’ll repeat that and we’ll promise to call, and then I will have to act. I will offer up a handshake for a quick second before pulling it away and throwing my arms out for a hug. As we move close I will notice that she had moved her head in for a second, and I will question it. Was she going in? Did she want a kiss? Have I blown the chance? To make up for it, I will try to kiss her on the cheek but will be off and catch half her eye.

Completely disgusted with myself, I will try to come up with some banter long enough to warrant a second goodbye. I won’t have anything and will repeat my promise to call again and just stand around in silence. We will giggle nervously and I will move in for a kiss and she will too, faster than I will have calculated, resulting in our teeth clacking together.

The second date will be quite similar to the first, with slightly less pressure. I will realize in preparation that my second-best shirt is not all that impressive, and will have to fly out to the mall to pick up something new. Halfway through the date I will realize in the bathroom that I forgot to take off the sticky plastic strip lined with the repetitious first letter of the shirt size.

At the end of this date the kiss will be a little less gawky, but nonetheless troublesome. We will make-out in front of her door for far too long. I will run out of moves and have to repeat them, going back and forth from lips to her cheek, her neck, down to her collarbone and back up again until it becomes tedious. I will wonder if she’s going to ask me in. She won’t, and on the walk home I will feel like I have done something wrong – that maybe she was going to ask me in for a drink, but the whole lips-to-cheek-to-neck-to-collarbone-and-back thing changed her mind.

I will both anticipate and dread the first sexual encounter. I will want nothing more than for her to just rip her clothes off, but then again, what kind of girl hops right into bed on the third date? What if I can’t get it up? When have I ever not been able to not get it up? Will those boner pills they sell in the bowling alley bathroom help me fuck longer? What if she has weird moles? Do her breasts look like I picture them? What if she’s crazy and kinky and likes to be slapped? Would I be willing to wear some weird leather body suit and a ball gag? Is Kenny Conway’s dick bigger than mine?

It will happen on a night that I hadn’t planned for it to. I will run into her at a bar, wearing a thrift store t-shirt. I will not have shaved that morning, and my deodorant will have begun to wear off. When she asks if I would like to go somewhere else, I will abandon my friends without a second thought.

There will be some sounds and smells and mishandled groping that hadn’t been anticipated in my fantasies, but on the whole it will go rather seamlessly– no moles or whips. Afterwards I will not be able to sleep. I will lie there long after the initial glow has worn off and listen to the crickets outside, wondering if it would be alright to go downstairs and make a sandwich.

The next morning I will take her to Bob Evans for breakfast and realize how pretty she still looks without make-up. We will have eggs and coffee and talk about the papers we have to write that evening. On the way back home I will drum the steering wheel with authority and sing along with Steve Perry. When the guitar solo wails I will pump my fist and clench my teeth in jubilation. I will decide ‘Open Arms’ should be our wedding song.

We will begin calling each other at random times, even if we don’t really have anything to talk about. There will be times late at night where we won’t even say anything at all for long intervals – we will just sit in silence content to know that we’re on the line together. There will be all sorts of cutesy gifts – if she comes down with a mild cold I will bring over a Blockbuster rental and some soup – and I will have to choose a pet name for her.

I will get to know her roommates, and say hi to them on my way to class. Sometimes late at night I will run into them in the hallway as I’m trying to navigate my way to the bathroom, disheveled and in my boxers. After awhile the situation will become so comfortable that I might crack a joke.

I will realize one night, as I hold her hair while she vomits in some bushes after having a bit too much to drink at the bar, that I love her. I won’t tell her right then. It will come out during a mundane Tuesday evening phone conversation; I will have meant to have saved it for sometime special, but she’ll have said something cute and it will just pop out. She will say it back.

If I can find a way to get through all of this in one piece, things will become a bit more manageable, less chaotic. I can just enjoy being with her, without having to wrestle with all the hassles of Kenny Conway or boners or how I should comb my hair. I won’t have to try to remember what her eyes look like, or rush out to get a last-minute haircut before we get together.

All of this nauseous, panicky doubt will fade away, and I will settle back into being a relatively rational twenty-two year old. Unless, of course, we happen to break-up. But that’s a whole other scenario that I don’t have time to think about right now. I have to get ready for the party. Emily will be there.

You Can’t Stick Out While Holding A Boy’s Hand

13 Apr

Ashley squirms in her chair, clacking manicured nails against the desk. Bare pink toes are pressed tightly against the edge where the rug meets the wooden floor, her right leg quivering and pumping in a spastic interpretation of the beat flowing from the little white buds tucked into her ears. Her head bobbles and swivels while she clenches and wiggles her jaw, as if she’s just discovering it’s function. Swollen pupils have risen above the ring of coral ocean, and dart around the glare of her computer screen as she hits the refresh button again and again and again and again and again.

This Erica girl’s profile is private, so she can’t find out about her or see what Sean has written to her. She looks intimidatingly pretty in her picture, but then again, everyone’s putting their best foot forward there, right? Ashley had sifted through hundreds of photos while putting off a paper before choosing her own, going with one from a summer cookout where her skirt was flowing and her hair was full of body and she looked engaged in the moment, barely aware of the camera’s existence but too caught up to give it any thought. This Erica is holding a beer in a clear plastic cup, sweaty and on a dance floor, laughing manically yet still looking fantastic. Like it was taken last week, and chosen on whim. She’s seen her dress in a store somewhere before, but can’t place where, envying not having the sense to pick it up, wherever it had been. Her post on Sean’s wall is innocuous enough, but there are too many LOL’s and exclamation points for it not to be a missile of flirtation, evidence of something that’s budding or sustaining. Clicking out of Facebook, her whole body twists in a sharp slither, a seemingly involuntary twitch brought on by a sudden pang of guilt and shame at her perversion. Snap out of it, Ash. It’s Friday.

She’d only taken Adderall a few times, and never without it serving as a precursor to heightened performance in long put off academic assignments. A lot of the girls in her hall had. They’d said it keeps you going longer, helps you stay a little bit more alert after the second Long Island. Curbs hunger, too. Without the frantic stress of looming deadlines, or the intent focus on a task at hand, she suddenly finds herself much more aware of its effects. She notices the terseness and tenseness of her breathing pattern, and attempts to corral it back to normal, which only results in a frantic yet calibrated in-and-out thrust from her nose, her teeth clenched as her body feels torn between jittery discomfort and fierce, needy desire.

She will fuck Sean tonight, for the same reasons that she popped the pill on a Friday night with no sign of a test or paper- a simultaneous desire to both fit in and be someone that she is not.

Unplugging her headphones and turning up her speakers, she dances towards her dresser with a goofiness and precision that she wouldn’t dare display in public. She fishes through the top drawer and pulls out the pair of aqua underwear with lace and a little frilly ring at the center she had purchased last weekend during the trip to the mall with a few girls from her floor. She had held them up and squealed, poking her tongue through her teeth while the others cooed and made vague references to a lucky boy. In her head, at the time, that boy was Sean, though she thought herself the lucky girl. Plucking the matching bra from the drawer, she tosses them onto the bed and begins sifting through the closet.

Flicking through hangers, she imagines flirting with Sean, dancing with Sean, having sex with Sean, Sean having sex with Erica, Sean sleeping with Erica, taking Erica to breakfast. Fuck, Ash, why did you take that pill?

She glances at herself in the thin bookstore mirror that hangs on the wall. She gives it her best pose, trying to imagine herself in something more elegant than soccer shorts and a t-shirt, but can’t see the beauty she strives to be assured of. Sure, her hair looks nice, and she knows she has a set of legs, but so do half the girls going out tonight. She’s smart (3.7 GPA) and listens to thoughtful music (Death Cab, Modest Mouse, etc.) and can hold her own in most conversations, but more often than not she seems lost — she doesn’t know a lot of the things that seem to be common knowledge around these parts. For one, she’s still not sure if she sucks dick well. They’ve seemed satisfied, of course, but it would take something catastrophic for them not to, right? She’s heard the bar gossip about who’s a firecracker and who’s a fish, she’s heard her friends cavalierly and knowingly recount blowjobs. Where does she measure up? How can she compete with that?

She looks in the mirror and all she can see is a scared kid.

Tonight will be different. A new beginning. A confident Ashley. She’s going to break out of her shell. She’s going to be somebody different. She’s going to take the bull by the horns. She’s going to prove her worth. Her dance moves get more sharp and flamboyant as she tells herself this. She slinks around like girls on television do, never for a second believing or feeling that’s she’s sexy, but working at formulating an act convincing enough to dupe others.

She’s not aware of the fact that she’s going to bed with someone tonight, whether or not it’s Sean. By breakfast, she will be a woman who has had sex with more than just one man.

Picking out a dress that she purchased with the woman she wants to be in mind, she heads off towards the bathroom to apply her warpaint before slipping into the chosen armor and heading into battle.

Wonderment Just Might Make You Hope

12 Apr

All of the faces on money look sad. I think people are too busy working for it or spending it to notice, but they all seem kind of miserable. Hamilton’s eyes radiate pain, like his dog died or his girlfriend just left him. Lincoln seems weary and disappointed. Washington has this look like he just let out a mournful sigh. Maybe he’s thinking about all of the slaves that he owned.

I never knew that Washington owned slaves until Doug, this guy that I work with, told me. He said that Washington treated them like shit and didn’t free them when he was supposed to. At first I didn’t really believe him, because I’d never heard any of that before, and he’s like thirty and still works in a restaurant. But then I asked Mr. Hanson, my History teacher, and he said that it was a different time and blah blah blah, but at the end of the day, he didn’t say that Doug was wrong. So this big hero who’s on money and carved into rocks and all that was a complete dick, and everyone knows it, but they go along with it, anyway.

Turns out Doug’s right about a lot of other things, too. He hates conservatives, but he doesn’t like Bill Clinton, either. He says Clinton bombed an aspirin factory and killed a bunch of innocent people, and cheated on his wife. When I told my dad about all of this, he said nobody was perfect, and that we voted Democrat, because the alternative was worse, and long story short, Doug was right and my dad votes for a guy who bombs factories and cheats on his wife.

We work at Wings & Things on Belmont Street, in a shopping plaza between a movie theater and a Starbucks. It’s a sports bar that’s as big as a warehouse and is always about ten degrees colder than it needs to be. I work after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays until ten, and on Saturdays from five until midnight. Doug works every night except Sunday, all the way up to closing time. I usually work the wing station or the fryers. Doug’s always on the grill. He has a long goatee and listens to music where the lead singers just scream. During breaks he sits on milk crates out back, smoking and reading science fiction books. He always smells like dishwater and cigarettes.

Tonight’s the last Saturday of the month, which means that the regular manager has the night off, and so Doug is in charge. I like these shifts because he lets me cut corners and usually lets me leave early, which means I get to see ‘Saturday Night Live’ from the beginning. Plus, it’s usually when he tells me about things like Washington’s slaves or how the war on drugs is an excuse to put poor people in jail. When the regular manager is around he laughs at what Doug says and calls him Carl Marks, so he doesn’t talk as much.

‘Minor, I’m ready for three fries and a shroom,’ he says, wiping his brow with his forearm, the burgers on the grill sounding like tires going through a puddle as he flips them. Doug calls me ‘Minor’, but I don’t really mind, because he treats me like more of an adult than anybody. He’ll buy me cigarettes, if I ask him, and tells me about all the things nobody else does. And one time, when I came into the back office, he tossed a condom at me and said ‘Keep your tool cool.’ I know it was just a joke, but he wouldn’t have made it if he thought I was just a kid.

‘Got it,’ I say, lifting up the breaded mushrooms that bobble around the crackling grease pool like misshapen lottery balls. We dart around to the hiss of fryers and the chirp of timers while Ozzy Osbourne sings about going insane. Everyone always talks about kitchen jobs like they’re for idiots, but they can be pretty hard sometimes. Each ticket has a bunch of different things on it, and they all need to be cooked and organized and go out in order, as fast as possible. Sometimes they don’t stop coming in for an hour or two. I bet if all of those people who talk about it like it’s so easy had to do it, they’d screw up every once in a while, too.

My favorite part about Doug being in charge is that he’ll let you make whatever food that you want. Once dinner rush has died down, I always make a Caesar salad with chicken and bring it over to Megan, who works at the movie theater, because I like her and that’s what she orders whenever she comes in. I try to make it perfect, just like it is on the menu photo, and Phil, one of the other cooks, always makes fun of me.

‘Is that for your girlfriend?’ he always says, but he’ll say it in a mean way, as if having a girlfriend or wanting one is supposed to be embarrassing.

‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ I always say, like I’m angry, even though I kind of want her to be.

‘Shut the fuck up, Phil,’ Doug always says. ‘When’s the last time you got any?’ Phil usually stops talking then, just like Doug does when the manager calls him Carl Marks.

I think about Megan all the time, but for some reason I can never quite remember what she looks like, and so it’s always a bit of a surprise when I first see her. At the movie theater, she has to wear this stupid puffy white shirt with a vest and a bowtie and put her hair up, but she still always looks so pretty it makes me feel like I’m going over the crest of a rollercoaster.

‘You have no idea how much I love you right now,’ she says when she sees me carrying the salad, the steam from the chicken frosting the lid. The movie theater is as drafty as Wings & Things, and there’s a big poster of Brad Pitt holding up a bar of soap and staring down at us. ‘If you didn’t bring this, my dinner would’ve been popcorn and gummy bears.’

I don’t say anything, my brain still stuck back in the first part. I know she didn’t really mean it, but she said it, and when a girl you like says those words, even if they’re kidding, it still feels nice. But then she added ‘right now’, which means that she doesn’t at other times, and I keep thinking stuff like that for a while and just smiling like an idiot until she snaps me out of it.

‘Busy tonight?’

‘A little bit’, I say, looking at the teardrop swirls in the maroon and green carpet. ‘But there’s no football or boxing, so I’ll probably get out early. You?’

‘I get out at eleven fifteen, right after the last movie starts.’

‘That’s cool,’ I say, shifting my weight from foot to foot. Whenever I’m around Megan, I suddenly become aware of things I never normally notice, like how I’m standing, or what I’m doing with my hands. ‘I’ll probably just go home and watch ‘Saturday Night Live’. The guy from ‘The X-Files’ is on.’

‘I’ve never seen that show.’

‘’Saturday Night Live’?’

‘No, ‘The X-Files’. Is it scary?’

‘Not really. It’s mostly about the FBI and aliens.’

‘Do you believe in aliens?’

‘I don’t know. Everybody lies about everything else, so probably.’

Just then her boss walks by, and she straightens her back and stops leaning on the counter. He looks at us for a second before walking off.

“Well, thanks for the salad,’ she says.

‘Sure, no problem.’

We’re not very busy for the rest of the night. Doug and Phil play a game where they try to fling onion slices onto a pair of tongs, and I get most of the dishes done. A little after ten, Doug has me clean all of the boxes out of the cooler and freezer, and together we take all of the trash out back.

‘You smoke weed yet, Minor?’ he asks with a cocked eyebrow, lighting the little white twig his lips are clamped around.

‘Yeah,’ I say, though I only did once with my friend Dan and his older sister, and I don’t think I did it right, because I didn’t feel anything. He takes a big puff and hands it to me.

‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he says with a wheeze, glancing around the back lot as he exhales. ‘How’d it go with Caesar Salad Girl?’

‘I dunno. We talked about ‘The X-Files’. She said she got off at eleven fifteen.’

‘Did you ask her out?’

‘No.’

‘You should ask her out.’

‘You think?’ I take too big of a puff and end up coughing and hacking until my eyes water.

‘Maybe not when you’re stoned,’ he says with a laugh, plucking the joint from my fingers. ‘But, yeah. Unless you’re content with just bringing her salads once a month. You just got your paycheck, right? What better way to spend your hard-earned money than on a girl you like?’ He takes a drag and stares off at the lights from the grocery store before starting to toss bags of trash into the dumpster. “Gotta have a reason for doing this shit, right, Minor?’

He lets me go home after we finish up trash. I’m feeling a bit loopy, and miss the first bus because I’m just sort of watching the trees swirl. I don’t get to see the first part of ‘Saturday Night Live’, but they do a ‘Celebrity Jeopardy’ and the guy from ‘The X-Files’ is so funny that I spit up soda through my nose. While the music guest is playing, I lay two week’s pay on my bed in a row, looking at all of the sad faces. My dad says that I should save my hard-earned money. Doug thinks I should spend it on Megan. I know people like my dad or Mr. Hanson probably think that Doug is an idiot, and maybe they’re right, but I think I’m going to go with him on this one.

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