Tag Archives: short story

At Least There’s Pretty Lights

25 Jun

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 we 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 flashing 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 occasional 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.

Candy Everybody Wants

23 Jun

The cracked yolk of the sun has broken over the red brick path in the center of town, and it still remains early enough to be quaint. Most everyone is still sleeping. The only ones out are the coffee-and-walk senior citizens, a few one-night stands gone wrong, the sullen employees hosing down the bar patios, and the stray bleary-eyed student accompanied by visiting parents. Jackie leans against a light post outside of a Wendy’s, burrowing her hands under her armpits as she peers down the street with puckered lips and a squint. A slight ring of black eyeliner encircle bright blue eyes that look out of place on her dark complexion, which is splashed with a few patches of imperceptible freckles and framed by the two jagged slits of dark brown hair that swoop down from the sides of her bangs. Poking out from behind them is a pair of elf-like ears studded with modest diamonds. She’s barefoot, holding a pair of heels, and wearing a hooded Michigan sweatshirt over a sleek black dress that clings halfway down her thighs. In the morning light her preparation for the previous evening looks somewhat pitiable.

“Thanks for coming,” she says, wiggling her painted toes as she glances down at them. I shake a cigarette from my pack and hand it to her before she can ask.

“How was last night?”

“Terrible” she mumbles, her lips clamped as she lights it. Jackie has been smoking for three years, but still handles a cigarette like a naïve middle-schooler. “I got raped.” Her bangs flutter upwards as she exhales. “Well, practically.” She says it as if getting raped were something akin to losing your friends at the bar or running up too high a tab.

“What does ‘practically’ mean?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” She slides her arms around my pathetically slender hips and places her chin on my shoulder. “Can we just not talk about it?”

On Saturday morning the sidewalks around the houses off-campus are usually strewn with broken bottles and vomit, so I carry her on my back for the last two blocks back to her place, no small task given that I only outweigh her by about fifteen pounds. ‘Faster!’ she cackles, digging her knees into my ribs and tightening her grip on my neck. This is as affectionate as she’s ever been in public with me. Normally she won’t even hold my hand unless she’s drunk or her friends aren’t around.

I met Jackie during our sophomore year on a night she had walked into a bar to find a girl with a tattoo on the small of her back licking her then-boyfriend’s ear near the pool tables. She led her friend out the door by the hand and marched to a party she knew of across campus. She fucked two people there, in the same bathroom, two hours apart. I was the latter, and the fifth person she’d ever been with. I’d imagine she’s approaching the twenties now.

Somehow, I always seem to end up with her, or girls like her. There’s a myriad of reasons as to how this can happen: too many drinks, a lack of new music, the thrill of slumming, the notion of possibly being a muse of some sort, the stimulating conversation, the possession of drugs, pity in a few cases; sometimes I serve as nothing more than a break from the norm. We all stray from types every now and again.

I’m brooding and I’m heartfelt and I’m capable of fostering the idea that actual caring exists beyond a mutual appreciation of beauty (not normally found amongst a crowd of suitors that sings “Born in the U.S.A.” with a patriotic sentiment). And she’s right to think that I care. And because I care, I’m not usually a part of all of what are considered the more glamorous aspects.

The Saturday nights of balancing on heels in slit dresses, flashing hollow laughs and smiles; none of that is reserved for me. I get the Thursday evenings in bars, the quiet evenings in, the hooded sweatshirts and jeans. I don’t normally get to animalistic groping in the bar bathroom by way of fifteen minutes of light conversation, I don’t get to drunkenly toss her over my shoulder like a dominated Neanderthal as everyone laughs, and someone makes a crack about sex. Instead I get to clean up the mess. I get solemn shifts to the bedroom signaled by way of hour-long, occasionally tear-filled conversation. And maybe she is spoiled and selfish and petty. But then again, if we were to fly over a gold miner from Uzbekistan and let him observe your life for a day, what do you suspect he would conclude?

‘Do you have any pot?’ she asks as her heels hit the concrete of her front porch with a thud. My back crackles like bubble wrap as I let her go.

‘Back at my place.’

‘I can borrow Anna’s car.’

Jackie wants to get high with me as often as she wants to sleep with me, which is about once every other half moon. The posing of the question is more of a direct statement that she wants to, as she assumes that I am willing to appease her at any time (she is correct). She dashes in to change and grab the keys and twenty minutes later we’re cruising the narrow strip of road wedged between inert cornfields in an immaculate silver Honda that still smells like a new car, despite the fact that it has thirty-six thousand miles on it.

A gaudy sparkling disco ball hangs from the rearview mirror, along with a beaded necklace and a tassel from her friend Anna’s high school graduation. The backseat is littered with a pile of sweatshirts, some clothing catalogs, and a pair of cork platform shoes. There are three CD’s in the center console – Garth Brooks, Christina Aguilera and a mix titled ‘Slutty Songs’, but Jackie had asked me to grab 10,000 Maniacs from my room. Her mother used to listen to Natalie Merchant while she made dinner.

She wants to hear the one with the one with the ‘who-who-who’s’, and as she bobs her head along to it while taking a pull from the joint I smile at the fact that she’s singing along to a warning against the spoiling of children.

‘Play the one with the banjo next’ she says, coughing as she hands the joint over to me.

‘A lot of them have banjo in it.’

‘The one about the boy named Jack.’

‘That’s about Jack Kerouac.’

She just smiles and sings along with the ‘who-who-who’s’, pouting her lips and floating her hand out the window. I want to be her, the sun shining on my highlights, riding around with someone who adored me, singing along to breezy music with flamboyance a few hours after I’ve been (practically) raped.

The Boy is a Boy

23 Jun

Ernest Hemingway sucks. People talk about how great he is, but I bet they’re just saying it ’cause that’s what they were taught. We had to read The Sun Also Rises in Mr. Hartley’s English class, and it’s boring as hell – the guy is depressed and he just drinks and never says anything about it. If I wanted that, I’d go talk to my asshole dad. The guy in the book is miserable because he’s in love with some slut but he can’t get it up after getting shot in Vietnam. I mean, that could be an interesting story, right? But the guy never says anything. What’s the point of writing a book about being sad if you never talk about being sad? I don’t get it.

My band, Anal Skull Fuckers, Inc., we say what we feel. We have a song called ‘Fuck George Bush’ and we come right out with it – we say that he sucks and he makes us mad. If Hemingway wrote a book called ‘Fuck George Bush’ it would probably be all about how the beer was cold or the sun was hot or how he had a headache. All of our songs are under two minutes, so we get straight to the point. And people really like us. Last summer we played a show in Pittsburgh and like a hundred kids showed up. The owner thought we were so good that he invited us back to play this summer, and we also booked a show in Buffalo and another in Cincinnati, so we lined them all up together and called it the Three Holes Tour (get it?).

Anyway, at the end of the year we had to write a paper on Hemingway, and so I told Mr. Hartley what’s what. I said that the book was stupid, and that Hemingway was a pussy who was too afraid to say anything, even when he blew his brains out. We had to cite other works, so I said that the book was as lame as his other one, The Old Man in the Sea, which we had to read the year before in Mrs. Donnelly’s class. I also said that Henry Rollins was much better than Ernest Hemingway, and we should read him instead, because he knew the world was shit, too, but he had the balls to say it.

I got an F, which meant that I failed the class and had to go to summer school, which meant I couldn’t go on the Three Holes Tour. If it were up to me I would’ve just quit school and gone on the tour, because the band was what I’m going to do for a living, anyway, but my mom said I had to stay in school until I was at least 18, which didn’t happen until August. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the band replaced me. They said it wasn’t fair to cancel the tour just because I was stuck in summer school, so they got this kid from the skate park, Stinkfinger Steve, to replace me. Me! The one who booked the shows in the first place! The one who wrote ‘Fuck George Bush’!

So I had to wake up early every morning and sit in a hot classroom that smelled like disinfectant while everyone else got drunk at the skate park and my band went on tour without me. All the English teachers must have had enough sense to go on vacation, because the class was taught by one of the gym teachers, Mr. Jensen. He favored the jocks, and was always showing off his college championship ring, even though he was only a punter. He called me ‘Johnny Rotten’ all the  time, but it wasn’t in a complimentary way.

‘How do you get through metal detectors at the airport, Rotten?’ he’d ask with a smirk and all of the jocks would laugh.

One night I got a call from Tom, and he said that someone from Morbid Records was at the Buffalo show, and offered to print a seven inch for us. But not for us. For them and Stinkfinger Steve.  He said that they’d been writing some songs while they were on the road, and were thinking of changing the band’s name to Satan’s Foreskin. I could hear a bunch of people in the background yelling and laughing. They sounded drunk. I just hung up the phone. If Ernest Hemingway’s band ditched him, he’d probably just sit in a cafe and talk about wine.

I went to the skate park. Roland was there, drinking tall cans of Steel Reserve under the ring of the spotlight. He was skinny and weird looking and only had seven fingers, ’cause his mom drank a bunch when she was pregnant. He had lots of squiggly homemade Nazi tattoos and could always score beer or pot or coke. I told him about the band, and about summer school, and he took me back to his mom’s place, which was above the bar that she worked at. It smelled like cat poop and garbage and everything was covered in cigarette ash. He gave me a tall can and pinched some coke from his mom’s room and said it would make me feel better.

It did, for awhile, but then I started to get panicky and my insides pulsed like a Joy Division bass line. I couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes, even though they were making me nauseous, and Roland wouldn’t stop talking about how much he hated Jews and blacks. The rabbit ears on his TV were wrapped in foil, and the horror movie we were watching came in fuzzy. I drank one more beer and went home.

The front door was locked, and my mom was out at the bar, so I had to crawl in through the kitchen window. I took my songwriting notebook and ripped it to shreds and threw away all of the tapes we’d recorded and hurled my bass out the window. Then I stole my mom’s wine and took all of the pills in the bathroom. Probably about seventy or eighty of them.

I woke up in the hospital. They made me drink black sludge and I threw up for a few hours, and once I was feeling better they moved me to another wing on a different floor, where the crazy people are. I’ve been here two weeks now. Doctors ask me questions all day, but I really don’t want to talk about the band, because if I talk about it, I think about it, and nothing hurts more than having to think about it here, where bug eyed crazies shuffle around and drool all over their green gowns. So I just shrug and say that the world is shit.

Fuck Ernest Hemingway.

Dancing In The Dark

21 Jun

Seventh grade has been a complete mess. Everyone goes through rough patches, I suppose. Even cool people. Look at Bob Dylan. He’s pretty much the coolest, and even he had that period where he painted his face like a mime. I’ll bet people made fun of him, too, otherwise he probably would’ve just kept on with it forever. I never knew my clothes or hair were stupid until people made fun of me for it. At some point, someone must’ve said to him ‘Hey, Bob, you look like a faggot.’ That’s what Rick Huntington said to me when I wore my dad’s leather jacket.

I was trying to look like Bruce Springsteen on the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ album cover. He looks tough, and he’s sneering and he seemed like someone Jenny Parker might like. But it turns out she likes guys who wear Abercrombie clothes, like Rick, and he called me a faggot, and I didn’t really feel like Bruce Springsteen on the album cover, so I tossed the jacket back in the storage room and got a job to save up for some Abercrombie clothes.

I wash dishes on the weekends at Mazarra’s near the mall. Mr. Mazarra is a friend of my grandfather’s, and he pays me twenty dollars in cash at the end of every shift. The dish tank is like a hundred degrees, and it makes your skin wrinkled and spongy. There’s usually four of us back there – me, Ramon and Luis, who don’t speak much English, and Monte, who has Down syndrome and only works until seven. There’s another guy, Wayne, but we’re not allowed to work together because he went to prison for touching kids.

It can get kind of boring because there’s no one to talk to. Sometimes Ramon and Luis will teach me dirty words in Spanish, but most of the time I just sing songs in my head. There’s that one R.E.M. song, ‘Stand’ – I like to sing that but change the words to be about what I’m doing, so in my head I’ll go ‘Stand in the place where you work, now clean forks’, and stuff like that. It helps pass the time.

When I’m not in school or at work, I like to sit in the basement and listen to my dad’s records. There are loads of them in the storage room, packed away in wooden crates, all dog-eared and faded. At first I used to play them based on what the covers looked like – I listened to Pink Floyd for the first time because they had the man shaking hands with the other man who was on fire, and the Rolling Stones because they had the real zipper on the cover and Billy Joel because he always looks sad and lonely on all of his album covers, and I feel that way a lot.

I don’t ever remember meeting my dad. Mom says I did, but he left when I was little to live with some other lady in California. I’ve never been to California, but everyone’s always singing about it, so there’s got to be something to it. One day I want to go out there and find him and talk about records. Maybe he could help me sort some of this stuff out. Mom’s great and all, but she’s not really much help. She just sits on the couch after work watching T.V. and sometimes she cries, and if I tell her about any of my problems she tells me how great I am, which I don’t really believe, because no one else seems to think so.

I’m kind of like Simon. He sings a song about how he’s alone and he doesn’t need any friends, and he seems like he’s doing OK, so maybe it will work out. He has his poetry and books, and I’m kind of like that with my dad’s records. He’s also kind of short and puny looking and has a dumb haircut, so we have a lot in common. Except that Simon probably doesn’t get a million boners and zits and I bet his voice doesn’t crack all of the time. And he says he doesn’t have friends, but then what’s Garfunkel? If he ever got too lonely he could always just call up and say ‘Hey, it’s Simon, want to write a song?’ I don’t have anyone like Garfunkel.

Tonight is our school’s Spring Dance. I didn’t want to go, because I went to the winter one and the music was crap and I just stood by the punch bowl the whole time. No one wanted to dance with me, and after a while I just waited outside the gym until my mom came to pick me up. But she says she always had fun at school dances and made friends and that I should go. Plus, I got an Abercrombie shirt last week. It was $60, which adds up to three shifts in the dish tank. Mom said that was ridiculous, and that no one should pay that much for a shirt, but when I told her that the dance was coming up and everybody wore them, she paid for half of it. She told me to save the rest and maybe use some to buy a girl ice cream after the dance. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that girls don’t like me, so I just said that I might. She’s always sad, and it would probably make her sadder to find out that I’m not as handsome as she thinks I am.

After I get out of the shower, I put on my Abercrombie shirt and try to style my hair all sorts of different ways. I make it like Sting’s, all pointy and messy, but I figure that Rick Huntington would make fun of that, so I try Rod Stewart hair, but that ends up looking just like Sting, and so I try to comb it down like the Beatles, but it’s not long enough, and even if it was Rick would probably make fun of that, too. He’s been on my case all year, ever since I wore the leather jacket. Whenever we pass in the hallways he does this thing where he jerks forward like he’s going to lunge at me, but he doesn’t, and when I flinch he laughs and knocks my books on the floor. Sometimes I really wish I was a tough fighter like Elton John or Mick Jagger, so I could just pop him square in the nose and tell him to leave me alone.

I end up doing my hair like I always do, and my mom says that I look really handsome. On the way there she asks me if there’s any girls I was thinking of dancing with, and I say maybe Jenny Parker, because the idea of me dancing with a girl seems to make her happy. She says that if Jenny and I wanted to get ice cream after the dance she could take us and even wait out in the car until we were done. I know she’s just trying to be a good mom, but it makes me want to cry because the idea seems so nice, and it will never happen in a million years.

Little circles of light bounce around the dark gym, and there are a few green and white streamers taped up in the doorway. A few girls are out in front of the DJ booth that’s set up under the basketball hoop, but they’re just kind of swaying, not really dancing. Everyone else is leaning against the walls or standing near the refreshments table.

I don’t really know what to do or who to talk to, so I duck into the bathroom for a minute, even though I don’t need to go. After that, I sort of take a lap and wind up at the DJ booth. The guy has big hoop earrings and when I ask him to play Fleetwood Mac he laughs a little. He says junior high kids don’t want to dance to Fleetwood Mac, but I tell him that I’m a junior high kid, and I dance to them all the time. He laughs again and says he’ll see what he can do. I head over to get some punch, where I run into Jenny. She has on a blueberry dress and heels with straps and her hair is swooped up. She looks really pretty.

‘How are you?’ she asks with the same chirpy sing-song voice she uses when she cheers at the football games.

‘I’m fine. You?’

‘Glad not to be in science class,’ she says, emphasizing the word ‘science’ as if it were our little secret.

‘Yeah,’ I say, and then it gets quiet for a minute.

‘I really love Third Eye Blind,’ she says, pointing towards the ceiling.

‘They’re great,’ I say, though I don’t know who Third Eye Blind is. It gets quiet again, and I start to think about the idea of dancing and ice cream and how happy my mom would be. ‘Hey, um, I asked the DJ to play a song, and he said that he would if I got people to dance to it, so maybe you could help me get some people?’

‘Sure. What song?’

‘Yeah, what song?’ Rick says as he bumps his shoulder into mine from behind.

‘Rick,’ she says with gritted teeth, stamping her foot and narrowing her eyes.

‘What? I’m just playin’, he says with a smirk, putting his arm around her shoulder. I start to walk away but Jenny follows me and grabs my wrist.

‘We’ll dance to your song, OK? Just tell me when it comes on and we’ll get people out there.’

It takes about four or five more songs, but when I hear the first few piano bars, I signal to her, and she grabs two of her friends’ hands and a bunch of others follow. At first when the song kicks up, everyone is jumping around and hollering, but when it starts to settle in people just kind of sway a little and don’t seem so excited anymore.

‘What the fuck is this?’ Rick asks with a crinkled face.

‘Fleetwood Mac.’

‘Who?’

‘Fleetwood Mac,” I say again, this time looking at the floor, a film of heat covering my face.

‘More like Fagwood Mac,’ he says with a laugh. ‘You can’t dance to this shit.’

He walks off and most everyone follows him. Jenny stands around for a second, and it looks like she might say something, but her friend pulls her away. After a minute or so the DJ changes to a different song and looks at me with a shrug. I get another cup of punch, and Mr. Michaels, my English teacher, says that he likes Fleetwood Mac, so we talk for a minute. He tells me I should listen to them before they had Stevie Nicks. I tell him I will, though I don’t know which one Stevie Nicks is. I hope he’s not the singer, as I like him, and the girl, Lindsey. They sound nice together.

The next song is a slow dance one – Janet Jackson, I think – and when it starts the bouncing lights settle into a steady carousel around the room. Everyone partners up except for a few of us, but I’m the only one who doesn’t have friends around they can pretend to talk to. Jenny dances with Rick, and puts her head on his shoulder while I stand against the wall, wishing that I hadn’t spent so much on a stupid shirt.

I wait until the dance is over before leaving, wanting my mom to think that I had a good time. As I’m walking past the line of idling cars Jenny calls out to me from behind, wobbling in her heels as she tries to catch up to me.

‘I’m really sorry,’ she says with a frown. ‘Rick is a jerk, and that was mean. I should’ve danced with you.’

‘It’s OK.’

‘I like that song,’ she says, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘They played it when the president got elected. He played saxophone.’

‘Yeah, he did.’

‘Seriously, though, I’m really sorry. I promise to make it up to you some time.’

‘Well, um, if you want, we could go get ice cream? My mom can take us. She’ll wait in the car. I can pay for it.’

‘Oh,’ she says, her eyes falling to the sidewalk. ‘I, um, we’re actually going to hang out in Rick’s friend’s basement. He lives down the street.’

‘Oh, yeah, no, that’s OK.’

‘Maybe another time?’ she asks, returning to her cheerleader voice but still frowning.

‘Yeah, sure. I’d like that.’ She kisses me on the cheek and my guts stretch and twist like boiling silly putty. She smells like green soap and perfume. I feel a little like Bruce Springsteen.

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

‘Was that Jenny Parker?’ my mom asks when I get into the car. I can’t remember the last time I saw her smile so wide, her cheeks bunching against her eyelids.

‘Yeah.’

‘Does she want to go for ice cream?’

‘She can’t. Her mom says she has to go home. But we might go, another time.’ She puts a hand on my knee, shaking it a little. ‘Can we please just go home?’

I’m not dumb enough to think that the kiss meant anything. I know she’s into guys like Rick who play football, and she just felt bad for me. But it made me feel nice, and maybe she could end up like a Garfunkel, and that would be a good start.

When we get back my mom turns on the T.V., curling up on the couch, and I head down to the basement and listen to songs about California.

Shut My Eyes and Play Along

2 Jun

Glossy magazines litter the coffeetable, all of them plastered with promises of tips on how to be thin and beautiful and fake a way into someone’s affection. The pale yellow walls are adorned with all sorts of photos and knick-knacks promoting an appreciation of wine, sex, countries they’ve never been to, eras they’ve never lived in, etc. This is where it all happens, where they lay around in sweats rubbing lotion on their legs and warping each other’s minds, further reinforcing all of the manufactured wants and desires. This is where the little pigtailed girls with chipped teeth in faded family photos go to die. I gaze off at a Marilyn Monroe poster and wonder if they’ve ever stopped to think they’re idolizing the beauty of a woman who killed herself because she was only idolized for her beauty.

We watch the lives of others on T.V. – dating shows, entertainment news shows, romantic comedies – and I can’t help but think that the entire design of the apartment, every decoration, everything about the way these girls talk to each other and present themselves to each other, is an attempt to represent a lifestyle that they don’t possess. When I am alone with them, none of them speak the way they do here in the living room. They are putting on a show for their friends, for the people they live with, for anyone who may be watching. One can be truly content with themselves and their lives, so long as they don’t have to gaze at other people’s.

They take turns in the bathroom, preparing their war-paint for the evening’s battle, flicking their hair with their fingertips and staring at themselves far more intently and deeply than they ever will at the one they’re trying to look nice for. Text messages are sent to the friends they want to see, the ones they don’t want to see, the boys they want to meet at night’s end, the back-ups, the ones they don’t want to run into, their thumbs pecking away like the beak of a pigeon.

It always seems one of them has a pressing issue with a flavor-of-the-month tryst, and they talk about it coldly, candidly, as if they are in charge. The ‘boy’ in question is static – he merely wants to sleep with her, and deep down she knows that. He plays flirtation games and makes comments to act disinterested as he slowly reels her in. No more and no less. The complications she is asserting are in her own mind, created because we can only be passionate about that which we don’t possess. She is passionate about something inside of her, something she can’t quite reach, not the well-built boy who makes lame jokes.

As purses are collected and we gulp down the last drinks needed to get out there and take the stage, I can’t help but be impatient to escape from the madness of the living room and the bar. I want to get past the shows that tell us who we should want to be, the anticipation of something that isn’t coming because we won’t allow it, the yelling over the crowd, the flirtations, the lights being turned up at last call, the stop at the late night bagel joint and the idle chatter with the vanilla fraternity member one of her roommates has brought back while they chat in the bathroom. I want the comfort of her bedroom, where I can count her eyelashes as she sleeps and wonder if that was really her out there.

Abandonment Like That Was Easier Then

31 May

Tim slips a dollar into the jukebox and puts on James Brown as we scrub and mop, grooving across the soapy tile floors with energy brought on by the prospect of the shift’s end. He counts the tips while I collect the trash and take it out around the corner, where I run into Mary, who I haven’t seen in two years. She’s wearing a matching blazer and skirt that makes her look like a flight attendant, and her haircut is one color now and looks a little more expensive. A plastic I.D. card is clipped to her coat and she’s holding a leather briefcase. I am unshaven, wearing an apron stained with mustard and barbecue sauce, and carrying two trash bags that are dripping an orange liquid.

She explains that she is in town recruiting for her company, and is on her way back to the hotel to change. I explain that I’m still living here and about to get off work, and it’s the first time I can ever remember being ashamed of this job. What scares me is how quickly I am able to shake it off. We make plans for a drink in the hotel bar, and I head back in to finish up the shift change.

I don’t know why we do this to ourselves. So rarely do we sit down with an old lover from a past life and not find ourselves wistful for older times or alarmed at their change in demeanor, appearance, friends, attitude. You aren’t sitting across from them, but rather what they have become, and once one dives into the chaos of this world, the change is rarely for the better.

Her eyes are as green as a fairway, and it seems they might be the only thing that hasn’t changed. She sounds more cynical, less warm; she smokes cigarettes now, and fake laughs at her boring co-workers’ jokes, and she no longer smells like a Blow Pop tastes. The cheap, chunky rings are missing from her fingers, and her shoes look uncomfortable to be in.

‘I wish I was still here,’ she says with a sigh, and I know she doesn’t mean that. She’s either trying to soften the fact that I’m still pouring drinks in this town, or she’s mistaking ‘here’ for ‘myself’. She probably enjoys drinking wine while she sits on Ikea furniture at parties where there are cheese cubes and no beer pong tables. I stifle the urge to say ‘me, too’.

‘You really shouldn’t smoke,’ I say, taking a drag from my cigarette.

‘It relaxes me,’ she says with a weariness that implies a stressful life, despite the fact that she’s spent the last twenty minutes telling me about how her days are compromised of sitting at a desk checking her e-mail, amazed that she’s getting paid eye-popping amounts of money to do so. My mind drifts off to the carefree girl flitting from table to table on a Saturday night, the one who would drunkenly pirouette down the sidewalk in front of me on our way home. I don’t see that girl in front of me anymore.

‘You really like how all of the instruments come in one at a time,’ she says as The Cure begins to play on the jukebox. She raises her eyebrows as if I’m expected to be impressed by her knowledge of me. At the moment, I kind of am.

‘I do,’ I say with a nod. She sighs and rests her chin on her palm, gazing at me in a ‘what are we going to do about you?’ sort of way, the kind of look she used to give me right before we kissed. I always felt like a naive child who’d done something so adorably stupid that she couldn’t help but squeal and embrace me.

‘You seem sad.’

‘Haven’t I always?’

‘Not like this.’ She traces a manicured finger around the lip of her glass. “How long do you plan to stay here?”

‘I don’t know…haven’t really thought about it.’

Her eyes are searching me for something, and I wonder if it’s the same thing I’m searching her for. On the surface, I haven’t changed much – I still have detailed opinions about “Just Like Heaven” and I still live here and work a service job, and I’m pretty sure I’ve worn this shirt back when we were together. But I’m certain that she notices the spirit missing from my eyes. Perhaps while I’m searching her for remnants of her old self, she is conversely searching for any noticeable change in me. I get the feeling that the both of us will be disappointed.

‘You know,’ she begins, taking a pull from her drink and pursing her lips. ‘I always thought that you would be the first person I knew here to leave and do something really great. I really did. I can remember looking at you some nights and thinking ‘in ten years, I’m going to be able to tell people that I dated this guy’.’

This may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, and yet it makes me feel nauseous. Not only does it contain the pangs of guilt, but it contains the notion that doing something great involves making a lot of money or being famous. It contains the idea that if I never left this town, she wouldn’t find herself proud of the fact that at one time in our lives we shared a connection. It implies that she’s reconsidered her idea of me, and I don’t blame her. I want to explain all of this to her, but I think she’s too far gone for it to make any sense. Or perhaps I am.

Thankfully before I have to respond a co-worker of her’s wearing a pale blue shirt with a white collar approaches, greeting me offhandedly in a manner that feels no different than if he were to pat my head or give me a quarter to go get some candy. He probably sees me as just what I am – an old acquaintance she’s left for bigger and better things. The only thing I’m unsure of is how much bigger or better those things are.

‘I told my friends I’d take them out for a night on the town,’ she says, her eyes still back in the conversation we were just having. ‘Would you like to come along?’

‘I don’t think so…I’ve got to open tomorrow.’

‘Well, it was really good to see you,’ she says with the frown of disappointment we all have when we briefly get to visit our pasts. She gives me one more burning glance of desperation, and hugs me tightly. As she catches up to her friends waiting near the entrance, I think of the wide-eyed boy who used to get butterflies when he saw her, the one whose face would beam so wide as she drunkenly pirouetted down the sidewalk in front of him on their way home.

I Think It’s Better the Second Time Around

24 May

As she fumbles to get the key into her front door, the realization occurs that this is the best part of the night. The bits that occur after the idle twenty minute chatter in the kitchen is what brought me here, but isn’t the knowledge or feeling that this person is eagerly and willingly walking you into their bedroom equal to or better than the physical sensation of the act? If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t matter who was on the other end of that sensation, would it? We’d fuck like blind rabbits. Isn’t the person in question usually carrying out some sort of role or aim we’ve concocted for them? Isn’t that the point?

I am more alone here than if I were by myself in my bedroom. The drone of my fan is missing. The person warming the back of my neck with her breath is a stranger. The most she can provide for me is a prop body for me to close my eyes and pretend it to be the one I would rather be with. I sold myself out there, recognizing her excessive giggling and brushing of limbs. I said things I didn’t mean and censored opinions and laughed at dumb jokes and ignored inane commentary and did nothing but prove to myself that being myself isn’t the reason I got here. And for what? What have I sold my character and time for? A mediocre drunken blowjob? Twenty minutes of thoughtless, distracting pleasure? This is far more shameful than paying for it monetarily.

I peel her arm away from my body and slip out into the quiet night, the slush of wet snow making a squishing, sucking sound as I walk. We often choose these partners on the merit of a thoughtless interaction – no phone numbers, no breakfast, no strife. But this is never the case. They are serving as an antidote to loneliness, an assurance. A replacement to disperse affection on and fuck when we can’t be with the ones we want. The situation cannot be casual and mutual, as neither party understands the other’s thought process. A disconnect exists that prevents comfort and flippancy.  I used her while I thought of someone else. She was no different than a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood masturbation tool – a blow-up doll with a pulse.

I stop into the gas station to grab a pack of cigarettes and to get the sting of feeling back into my numb fingers. The skinny middle-aged man behind the counter is the same one who sold condoms to us a few hours earlier, rolling his eyes as we stumbled and howled near the coffee machine. Now he gives me a sly smirk and a wink as I hand him a five.

It all comes down to the desire to love and be loved. Without that passion, that seeking of affection, that hazy sense of romanticism, you are merely fucking a stranger, and with every stranger I fuck I feel a little less able to ever believe in those things again. We de-emphasize love while we scrutinize sex, and why are we scrutinizing sex in the first place, outside of the lacking of what we expected it to provide? We attach some grandness to it, some buzz, that it can’t live up to because, well, it’s just sex. It’s mythos lies in validation, in the giggling and high fives of friends, the images of media, our green nature on a subject we have to fight ourselves to frankly discuss; without affection, it is simply a highly pleasurable sensation, something akin to a massage at the spa.

By the time I arrive home my pant legs are soaked halfway up to my shins, rings of salt dust layering around their ends. Seth is asleep on the couch, an episode of Taxi glowing from the television. I peel off my jeans carefully, making sure not to touch the frozen ends to my skin.  The tips of my toes are still numb as I crawl into bed. Every now and again I hear the faint sound of Danny Devito’s animated ranting. I grab an extra pillow and pull it to my chest, drifting off to the low hum of my fan and the canned laughter of a 1970’s studio audience.