Kissing Just For Practice (Part II)

3 Jul

I never masturbated with a hot dog. I don’t have the slightest clue where that story originated. Countless hours of my life have been wasted pondering every possible avenue of explanation, but nothing ever adds up.

Even the most wild and improbable rumors of McKinley Junior High usually contained some kernel of truth from which they popped. John and Jane make out at a party, Jane misses a few weeks with mono, and suddenly everyone’s whispering about some secret abortion. A sophomore trying to be funny gets arrested for faux-coughing ‘Pig!’ during the break-up of a parents-out-of-town party, and come Monday, the word is that he punched the cop and stole his gun.

I had never masturbated before when that started going around. I wasn’t even entirely sure why one would. Sexuality was a foreign world that I tried to avoid.

The avoidance was partly due to intimidation, unaware that my peers who acted confident on the matter were as clueless as I was. But mostly because I knew it was something I wasn’t going to be a part of. When I was little, my mom used to sit on the couch and watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. She’d get all excited and shout when she saw some really extravagant luxury that looked wonderful. But when it was over, she’d realize she’d never have it, which would make her sigh and light a cigarette and stalk off to mix another Screwdriver.

That’s how I felt about sex. It seemed interesting at first. The idea of it made me feel warm and gave me butterflies. But once I sensed that no one wanted to have it with me, I paid less and less attention to it. And when my friends started doing it, they all turned into impulsive idiots, which made it even less appealing.

I didn’t masturbate for the first time until freshman year of college. It’s not like I was asexual or anything. I had buzzy feelings and tongue-tying crushes and all of that. But it was mostly based around the idea of love and sex. The act itself made me uncomfortable.

The only thing more puzzling than how the rumor got started is why anyone would feel the need to craft it. Most gossip tended to revolve around people that were noticed – the popular kids, the troublemakers, the crazies. But I had been more or less invisible up to that point.

Kids had always made fun of me, but once we got to junior high, it became less and less noticeable. Elementary school mockery is open and venomous, and everyone is fair game. Junior high isn’t much more civilized, but there’s a sense of empathy developing, as well as a hierarchy. This newfound understanding doesn’t make them stop, but it does instill a certain sense of decorum and boundaries. The open, public venom usually doesn’t get spit unless you join the fray. Any attempt to be cool or join the circle – as sheepish and innocent as the motive may be – is a murky, subconscious entry into the race for alpha status, and no one is safe. Throw your hat in the ring, and all bets are off. If you keep to yourself, people will still make fun of you, but they mostly do it out of earshot, and when they’re done laughing, sometimes someone will say ‘Aw, I feel bad. She’s nice.’

Once in a blue moon, I was an innocent casualty of someone’s need for validation – someone would need an easy mark and make a crack about me passing in the halls. Their pack would laugh and my cheeks would heat up, but most of them didn’t even know my name and the moment was forgotten before late bell. I was more or less off the radar.

Or so I thought.

Contrary to popular belief, I spent the night of Spring Formal at home watching movies with my mom. She was convinced that my inability to find a date had caused some depression that needed to be tiptoed around and soothed with distractions. I wasn’t bothered one way or the other, and was actually looking forward to going online and playing GemStone. A bunch of people I knew from the game had planned to attempt a trek from one side of the map to the other.

But I could feel the warmth in her intentions, and so I feigned excitement at the suggestion of pizza and ice cream and Blockbuster. I rolled my eyes when she shoehorned some darkest-before-the-dawn parable about meeting my dad into the conversation, and grunted with clenched teeth whenever she asked vague, rehearsed questions about my life, but for the most part I pretended to enjoy it, and at moments I honestly did.

The story caught on pretty quickly, but I can’t say when it started. I was one of the last to hear about it. But I can remember noticing something was different. People stared and pointed and snickered, especially on days when the cafeteria served hot dogs. I went from feeling invisible to wishing I was, without the slightest clue why until later that summer.

Every June our town held a festival where a bunch of carnies came through town with low rent rides and games and fried food stands. Even those who rolled their eyes when they mentioned it ended up going. There wasn’t much else to do. I went with Paige, a girl from the trailer park I played Magic with. We ended up running into some other trailer park kids, and everyone snuck off into the woods to smoke a joint. I didn’t smoke weed, but I enjoyed being a part of a group.

The guy with the weed had long hair and a leather jacket. He was a little scrawny and kind of bug-eyed, but still really cute. Sitting on a stump at the head of the circle, he rolled the joint on a cheap framed Jack Daniels logo he had won for popping balloons with darts. Everyone listened when he talked – he seemed like a leader without striving to be. At one point, I did an impression of the carnie from the balloon game that made him laugh so hard he gave me a beer from his backpack and offered me a seat on the cinder block closest to him. For a minute or two, I let myself daydream scenarios where he might like me.

‘So you go to McKinley?’ he asked, shaking the hair from his eyes. I wanted them to be the eyes of a poet. They looked like it.

‘Yeah.’ They all went to Taft, which was on the other side of town.

‘You know Greg McGill?’

‘No.’

‘Dave Harransky?

‘Yeah, he’s in my homeroom.’

‘Yo, you know that chick who snapped a hot dog off in her cooch?’ the kid to my left shouted with a cackle. A few people laughed. He had an underdeveloped mustache and he talked like a redneck trying to sound black. ‘What’s her name? Shelly Hudson?’

Paige shot me a panicked look, quickly trying to recover with a feigned confusion. I just shook my head and said no.

‘Did that really happen?’ asked my daydream boyfriend.

‘Shit, yeah! My cousin was workin’ in the E.R. that night!’

‘Isn’t everyone really snobby there?’ Paige asks, a bit too fast and loud, the delivery a bit wooden. This is usually the first thing someone from Taft asks about McKinley. I run with her cue, and after a minute or two the conversation shifts to syncing up The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon.

Everyone has moments in life when they realize that their perception was totally off, and they were completely oblivious to reality. Like processing the reveal of a twist in a good thriller, your mind begins to spin, frantically reflecting on evidence that suddenly seems obvious but hadn’t been considered. I pretended to be a part of the circle, but was just following social cues at that point. I caught enough bits and pieces to realize that my fantasy poet was kind of an idiot with a grasp on reality as flimsy as my own, but for the most part, the conversation around me sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Paige painted her nails black and dyed her hair a choppy, homemade combo of jet black and Kool-Aid red. She acted fierce and jaded, but was actually pretty fragile emotionally. Most people don’t know how ridiculous their lies can be until they’re exposed for them, and a lot of the time it’s easier and less complicated to let obvious fibs pass than call them out. Judging by the adults around me, I don’t think this sort of thing ever really stops, but it was especially absurd in junior high. One of Paige’s toe dips into uncharted waters was a claim that she was training to be a Wiccan or a witch or whatever. She talked of witnessing weather spells cast and demons summoned, and when she said it I wanted to laugh, but just nodded instead, mostly to be polite, but partly out of the naïve sliver of wonder that hoped it was true. There was also some occasional mention of an off again-on again boyfriend who went to Taft. Supposedly he was a drummer in a metal band with a twelve inch dick who could fuck for hours, though I never met him or anyone who had.

Before signaling to her that I wanted to leave under the pretense of some vague prior commitment, I jumped into the rotation and smoked weed for the first time. It tasted like a pine tree and left some bitter sap on my lips. I became uncomfortably dizzy, which was disorienting but somewhat fitting. I don’t know why I decided to try it. It just felt like the thing to do.

The whole walk back I thought about asking, and I think she was preoccupied with the fear that I would. I waited until we were back at the festival, hoping that the lights and bells and people would somehow distract from the awkwardness.

‘What were they talking about back there? The hot dog thing?’ Paige fishes a black cigarette from the metal case with the Black Sabbath logo on it. A lot of people who try to act cold and tough but are really softies tend to worship Ozzy Osbourne. It makes sense if you listen to him. For some High Priest of Darkness, his lyrics are pretty vulnerable to the point of being sappy.

‘Yeah, sorry about that,’ she says with a shake of the head, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear, the seven metal rings hanging from it resembling the spine of a spiral notebook.

‘Do people think I did something with a hot dog?’ She took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. It wasn’t much different from the reaction my mother had when she realized I’d deduced the truth about Santa Claus.

‘Did you?’ There’s an apologetic whimper to the question. As she asks, her whole body scrunches and shrinks.

‘No,’ I said, with a fluster that was genuine, though I feared it would mistaken for the ludicrously improbable acting so commonplace at the time. ‘How long have people thought this?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, suddenly remembering that her persona is supposed to be cold and calculating. She takes pronounced drags off her skunky cigarette and becomes fixated on the lights of the fast pitch booth. ‘Taft kids started talking about it a few weeks ago.’

‘What do they think?’

‘People say that on the night of McKinley’s Spring Formal, you were masturbating with a hot dog and it broke off inside you. They say you had to go to Hillcrest and have it removed.’

It takes me a minute to say something. I don’t even try to fake the impact of the blow. My legs are flimsy rubber, and it feels like I’m stumbling around with slot machine eyes, my mouth guard hanging from a drooping jaw. The whole world can see how weak I am, and I can’t even get it together enough to go down swinging.

‘That never happened.’ The look she gave me was the first of many. The eyes of someone you trust, who you think knows you, firmly meeting yours with a glint that suggests even the most adamant and logical protestations will always be tainted with a drop of skepticism. I felt like Fox Mulder. Telling the truth makes you sound crazy.

‘Did you think it did?’ I ask, snatching the cigarette from her hand and taking a drag. This was a first for me, as well, and looking back I think I did it both for the distraction and as an emphasis of my desperate confusion. ‘Since you’ve met me, have you thought that I did that?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, chewing on her thumbnail, her self-described ‘I speak my mind, I don’t hold back, I tell it like it is’ persona suddenly nowhere to be found. ‘Maybe. But…whatever. I’m your friend, either way. I figured if it was true, you’d tell me, if you wanted to.’ She bites her lip, her shoulders deflating.

‘Well, it’s not true.’ I wrapped my arms around my chest and huffed at first, trying to look annoyed, but I couldn’t keep it together, and after a few seconds I collapsed onto her in a desperate hug a bit too awkward to have in public (with the exception of funerals, weddings, and sporting events). She hugs me back, tightly, which is the nice thing about outcasts and the downtrodden. For all of our flaws, we tend to value raw, emotional honesty with a patient understanding.

Usually.

I always tend to cast myself in the role of some righteous and earnest person who is constantly trampled by the cold and superficial world around them. But looking back, maybe I took that notion or circumstance as a free pass to lash out. I wince when I think of Paige and I clutching each other as the streaming crowd around us either ignored it or reacted with eye rolls and one liners. But it was the right thing to do on her part, and it was just what I needed. It seems like a simple gesture, but it takes some bravery and selflessness, and was something that had been missing from my life for some time. I’d had it with family, but they’re family. They can only protect you out in the wild for so long.

This lack was something that I looked at for a long time as an unfair burden brought on by a low rank in a cruel world. But maybe you get what you give.

The last time I’d felt such comfort was with Karen, my childhood best friend. I’d always chalked our drifting apart up to her being another vain and shallow follower leaving me for the plastic world of popularity, as did those who tried to comfort me when it happened. On paper, it certainly looked like I was the innocent victim, and I played it that way. But as time goes on, I feel more and more like I was the one wearing the black hat.

Karen once needed a hug like the one Paige gave me. And I didn’t give it to her. Not only that, but I scoffed at her. She had been ditching me for a spot at the cool kids table, treating me like a pet or outright ignoring me whenever the two worlds collided. Our drifting apart was kind of inevitable in retrospect, but things really dovetailed the night she told me she gave her first blowjob to Mark Phillips.

He was this idiot baseball player whose dad was a dentist. He tortured me in fifth grade math class, constantly making fun of my since-corrected stutter. Karen stood up for me once, turning the heat on him with cracks about a small penis. Mark had always stood for everything that was wrong. And then she turned around and blew him.

In what could have been her darkest hour of confusion and shame, she clung to me for support, like I did Paige. If Paige had responded with the cold indifference that I did, I honestly think I may have attempted suicide that night.

As comforting as that embrace was, it was only the beginning. A few weeks after the festival, I got a letter in the mail from the Larkin Academy for Girls. I had scored really high on some standardized test and was offered a scholarship for low-income students. Most people thought the transfer was an attempt to run from the constant linger of shame. There’s probably some truth to that. If the rumor never got started, I may have protested the idea of going to a school with rich girls named Dakota who made the most impossibly perfect cheerleaders at McKinley look flawed, or having to wear itchy polyester uniforms with knee high socks.

But that’s not why I went. My parents saw it as some huge opportunity they never had, and my dad started working overtime to pay for the part of tuition that wasn’t covered. Everyone just assumed that it was because of the hot dog incident. My protestations and attempts to clarify became less and less inspired after time. No matter what I said, that glimmer of doubt would always be there. I would always be the girl who masturbated with a hot dog.

I never did uncover the genesis of the story, but for a long time I had penciled Karen in as my main suspect. She was my only vine to that world, and there was a motive. I never had enough evidence to convince myself fully of her guilt. In the end, I don’t think she had anything to do with it. Even so, she became the face of all the cruelty that I suffered.

An embarrassing amount of time was spent crafting poison-tipped lectures denouncing her fake and empty way of life, and there were a few opportunities to recite them, though I never did.

My feelings toward Karen burned, festered, scabbed, and eventually healed. The more I studied the scar, the more it felt like a self-inflicted wound. After time, she became something of a fictional character, somehow responsible for things that occurred years after we last spoke.

The idea of contacting her came to the surface a few times a year, but I never acted on it.

Kissing Just For Practice (Part I)

3 Jul

Shelly Hudson used to be my best friend. I don’t really know when ­­it ended exactly. It started some time during the summer before kindergarten. The details are kind of hazy, but I remember that we met playing Super Mario Bros. at some neighborhood birthday party. I was Mario, she was Luigi. I don’t recall any specific bonding moment or witty dialogue or shared interest that set a spark, but something must’ve happened that day, because we were pretty inseparable for the next few years.

Our Friday sleepovers – once a treat to be plotted, begged for, and arranged –became such a staple that our parents eventually established alternating driving and location schedules. It was typical teenage sleepover fare – crafting friendship bracelets of every neon fabric and cheap metal that was fashionable, eating too much junk food, developing and admitting first crushes (Special Agent Fox Mulder, both of us). As we got older, our parents – forced into an arranged friendship due to ours – would plan double dates, leaving us to giggle in the basement with rented videos while they drank in some strip mall Italian restaurant.

It became common knowledge amongst peers and their parents in our elementary school that if you invited Shelly, you had to invite me, and vice versa.

We started drifting apart somewhere around the start of junior high. If you had asked me at the start of seventh grade who my best friend was, I would’ve said Shelly, without hesitation. By the middle of the year, I probably would’ve still said Shelly, but I may have paused, the answer having been met far too often with the perplexed scrunch of whatever face I was trying to impress at the time.

‘The girl with the glasses?’

‘The girl with the glasses’ was one of the kinder identification traits people used for Shelly. She had these thick pink frames with pointy ends, the kind that are sought after in hip second hand shops when you’re older, but a sure sign of hopeless loneliness in the fifth grade. Most people thought she’d had a clueless mother with poor fashion sense, but Shelly had picked them out herself. I was there. I tried to talk her out of them.

‘The girl with the red hair’ probably topped the list, but that one felt like it came from polite guilt, as it didn’t really narrow anything down and wasn’t even her most noticeable trait. It was a politician’s answer. Plus, her hair was more of an auburn, sometimes strawberry blonde if she spent enough of the summer outside.

‘The girl with the weird dresses’ wasn’t too bad. ‘The girl with the weird mom’ isn’t exactly what you want to be known for, but at least it was relatable and not really her fault or lack. It could get pretty cruel after that – things about weight and teeth and poverty.

Eventually all of those descriptions were rendered obsolete by an incident in the ninth grade that ensured most everyone – even kids from other schools – knew her name. If someone had to ask who Shelly Hudson was, there was only one answer. ‘The Hot Dog Girl’. She became an urban legend so large that it defined every facet of her social being.

By that point I had long stopped identifying her as my best friend. If you had asked me after Spring Break of seventh grade, I would’ve probably said Nicole Kish or Amy Andrews or Lindsay Mendenhall.

At first, I made it a point to hang out with Shelly every now and again. We’d go to the movies or have a sleepover, like old times, but by then we were just going through the motions. It felt like some awkward act of charity or penance that no one wanted or needed. I wasn’t hanging out with her because I wanted to. I was doing it because I didn’t want her to hate me for not wanting to hang out with her anymore. Each get together was planned with the hope that it might alleviate the guilt I felt, or serve as some sort of proof that I wasn’t a bad person. It didn’t take long to realize that it had the opposite effect. By the start of eighth grade, our relationship had withered down to the occasional nod as we passed each other in the hallway between classes.

I’ve tried every angle I can think of to explain this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a vain, selfish bitch, but I don’t think there is one, so I’ll just spit it out as plain as I can: I’m really pretty. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t believe this in the slightest. On the contrary, I lose sleep over the belief that I’m not. When I look in the mirror, I see the zits and scars and sickly pale twig legs of some weird girl that no one wants. I see the bones sticking out. And if they’re not sticking out, I’m losing my mind over the fat that pads them. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I know most boys want me. My breasts grew right around the time that boners started swelling, and though I’ve always felt the same, I’ve been a different person ever since.

People assume that everyone thinking you’re really pretty is some grand solution or easy path, but it isn’t. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful. I know that I’m really lucky, and most people would kill to have my problems. It’s not like I don’t use it to my advantage whenever I need to. But it’s not as rosy as it sounds.

The world can seem like a pretty lonely place when you can never fully trust that anyone likes you for who you are. I try to ignore it, but deep down I know that regardless of what I say or do, my date will still tell me how pretty and smart and funny I am. That sounds nice, and it can be at times, but in the long run it just makes you feel paranoid and worthless.

Being pretty and popular also means that a lot of people expect you to be the cure for all of the world’s ills. You’re the one who’s going to ditch the jock at the big dance for the sweet geek who professed his love. You’re the avatar that gives boys not only purpose and true love, but confirmation that the world isn’t superficial. You’re the muse, and you’re supposed to do the right thing in the end, or reward someone else for doing it. And if you don’t, you’re the problem. You’re the proof that the world is vapid and cruel. It’s somehow your fault or your lack if you don’t live up to the hope and morality of a John Hughes movie.

Anyway, Shelly and I first started to drift apart once boys noticed me. Our junior high was the pooling of the town’s three elementary schools, a combination that caused a seismic shift in the social hierarchy. Jocks became stoners, the quiet kids spoke up, popular kids suddenly had to vie for a throne they’d effortlessly occupied simply by being. Somewhere in that shuffle, I went from quirky and forgettable to hot and the subject of bathroom graffiti.

I tried to take her along at first. But it was obvious early on that neither one of us were enjoying ourselves. Whenever I brought her around, I could never live in the moment. My every word and action was part of a mission to simultaneously make Shelly feel welcome, while nudging my new friends to accept her as a part of the gang. At the time, I was unaware of the futility of either wide-eyed hope. I was trying to play God in a world where I lacked thunderbolts.

Shelly didn’t seem to enjoy it, either. At first, I thought it was a matter of intimidation – she probably just felt jealous, or inadequate, or frightened that she didn’t belong. But looking back, I think more than anything she was just confused and disgusted at the idea that I was drifting away from her for something so empty.

‘I gave Rob Phillips a blowjob last night.’ It was our last sleepover. I had always envisioned sharing details of my first sex act with her. We’d be sitting Indian style on her bed in pajamas, and there would be an initial discomfort and disgust that was mostly for appearances. She would yell something like ‘Ew! Karen!’ and scold me and smack my shoulder, but the act would quickly give way to the giddy curiosity at her core. She’d grab my wrist and scoot closer to me and ask for details.

She did say ‘Ew! Karen!’. The discomfort and disgust was real, though, and there wasn’t any giddy curiosity. I think she actually might’ve scooted an inch or so away from me.

‘What? We’ve both wanted to do it.’

‘Not with Rob Phillips.’ She drew his name out with dramatized disdain. ‘You hate him. You said, and I quote, that you’d rather have sex with one of The Lone Gunmen, because at least they weren’t apes who blasted Limp Bizkit in their dad’s Honda while-‘

‘I know. But he’s actually pretty sweet. I think maybe we were just judging-‘

‘We were judging him because he’s an Aryan zombie jock.’

‘I know he comes across that way, but he’s really not that bad. He-‘

‘He what? Told you that you were pretty? Smart? Funny? Different from the other girls?’

‘Shelly, trust me, I was as surprised as you are. I didn’t plan it. We just-‘

‘You’ve already turned into one of them.’ It sounded like she wanted to say it with a disdainful anger, but it came out in more of a choppy whimper. It still shook the room. She stopped looking me in the eye, her focus shifting to picking lint from her rainbow socks with the individual toes. ‘Rob Phillips is an asshole. He’s boring, and he’s dumb, and you blew him because he’s good looking and you’re good looking and it would make you more popular. ’

It was silent for a minute before I erupted. They were real tears, not some dramatic act meant to elicit a specific response. But I did kind of assume that she would hug me. When she didn’t, I tried my best to stifle the sobbing jags, grabbing a pillow and blanket before slinking off to the couch. I fell asleep trying to think of a good response. Never came up with one.

It’s not like that was The End or anything. But everything after did kind of feel like an epilogue. We hung out a few times, and every now and again we managed to fall back into the way it was, but even the best times had the pall of a Sunday school night hanging over it – for the most part, it was in the rearview.

We were running on fumes. I had stopped watching X-Files and she had started smoking clove cigarettes. I became a football cheerleader and she got into The Grateful Dead. She went to Renaissance Fairs with trailer park girls and I went to keg parties with basketball players. Towards the end, we probably looked more like two strangers forced to do a school project together than close friends.

Our junior high held a Spring Formal dance for ninth graders about to graduate. Students nominated a Sun Court of ten guys and ten girls, with two being voted Sun King and Queen. The general consensus was that it would come down to me or Heather Gray, the deaf girl who was president of the Drama Club. I know people never mean it when they say things like this, but I had sincerely hoped it was Heather, to the point of voting for her. If I had won, I’d once again be the bitch and everything that’s wrong with the world, proof that it’s all some shallow rigged game.

Anyway, at some point that night – maybe when Heather was crowned, or during my nine straight beer pong wins with Sun King Chad Albers as my partner, or while I lost my virginity to him on Keith Connor’s little brother’s Toy Story bed sheets – Shelly was at home masturbating with a hot dog when it broke off inside of her. I don’t really know all of the details, but I guess she panicked and told her mother, who took her to the emergency room. Somehow, word got out, and that was it for Shelly. She transferred to a private school the next year, but it followed her there, too.

We didn’t talk for a long time after that.

Hello, Goodbye

27 Jun

I’ve heard that you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person. The Stones person is outgoing, spur-of-the-moment, ready to love and hurt and fuck and shake hands without stopping to think about it. A Beatles person encompasses a quieter, deeper thinking, more wistful disposition; equally tortured, but still guarding a piece of their soul from the world.

This is not to say that if you consider yourself a Beatles person you don’t like the Stones at all, or vice-versa. It could mean a strong preference for one, not necessarily an aversion to the other. And it’s not necessarily an issue of musical preference – do you believe that murder is just a kiss away, or that love is all you need? Are the Stones realists where the Beatles are dreamers? Answering those questions won’t necessarily define your position, but it certainly sheds some light on your nature.

While I firmly believe that this distinction is a very valid one that can tell you a lot about a person, simply receiving an answer to the question will not tell you everything. For instance – any person under the age of twenty-five will immediately want to respond with Stones after hearing the above prompt. Doesn’t mean they will, but they will *want* to. Everyone would rather be a popular idiot than a lonely genius. Not to imply that this is a division aligned with the Beatles or Stones – Jagger isn’t necessarily an idiot (but who’s going to call him a genius?).

I think I’m a Beatles person trapped in a Stones person’s body. I would be much happier spending the night in with Whitman, but my legs inexplicably carry me out to the bar with Hemingway. I want to be both, all at once, and I’m halving myself trying to do so. Jennifer is definitely a Stones girl, or at least she’s done a good job of convincing us all. She’s wearing a black vest over an MC5 t-shirt and she holds her cigarette as if it were a weapon, smoke exploding from her mouth like steam from a train whistle, signaling her jaded amusement at lesser beings. She knows that you want her, and that makes her infinitely less attractive.

‘I fucked Adam last night,’ she says, finding something fascinating in her crimson nails.

‘Why?’ Halfway through swigging my bottle I shake my head and throw up my hand with a grin that causes a little beer to seep from my lips. ‘Stupid question…I know exactly why.’

‘Clue me in.’

‘We’re just animals, right?’

‘Exactly…it was just a fuck.’

‘Then why are we talking about it?’ She loses a little of her smirk and I gain a bit of mine. I’ve drawn the Beatle out of her. She loves him, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Adam is a recurring regret, the type that she will one day look at in distant photographs and feel sad, not just because he’s gone along with her youth, but because she really loved him and has come to realize that he wasn’t worth it. She senses that he isn’t worth it now, and makes wry remarks indicating so, but she rarely admits to herself or anyone else that at the moment it means everything to her.

‘He left his watch on my nightstand and I slipped it into the drawer when he wasn’t looking,’ she confesses, her palms patching her eyes.

‘You pulled a reverse Costanza?’ She just emotes what could be considered a groan or a laugh and shakes her head, eyes still shielded from this world.

‘How about you?’ she asks, flicking her bangs and recomposing her persona. “You still talking to that one girl you said was crazy?” The thought occurs that various friends have referred to current love interests as ‘the one you said was crazy’ for far, far too long. The pitfalls of chasing Stones girls, I suppose.

‘Pretty sure she hates me now.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because she’s crazy…and so am I, I guess.’

“Right,” she nods, glancing up at me with the smile they always give, the barely perceptible green light to go forward with the smarmy banter until we find ourselves asking for bus times in the harsh light of morning.

When we step out for a smoke, I will plant one on her, because that’s what a Stones man would do and that’s what a Stones girl wants. And it’s been my experience that when two Stones collide, the impact often causes them to shatter, or at least chip away a bit. She will look at me for a silent and momentous moment in a whole new light, a glowing Beatles smile in a Stones world, her eyes saying why and mine saying I don’t know. She will kiss me back, with the lost foolishness of a McCartney melody and the back gripping passion of a Jagger growl, and at that moment neither one us will have the slightest clue as to which camp we’re in.

Wisecracks Won’t Make You More Stable

27 Jun

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 floor.

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 that we all 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 sodium 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 I don’t like them 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 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.

Everything is Undermined

26 Jun

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.

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.

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