You Are An Object:
A place to treat bros like girls.
The Greeks used to do the same thing, only in caves and with sculptures and stuff--there's books about it. It's like a whole thing or whatever. I Googled it.
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BUY MY BOOK: Strange: A Novel
Strange: A Novel - E-Book Version
You barrel into the mens’ room and ask yourself how much time you have to wait, can wait, if there were people in here, but there are none. There’s barely anyone in the bar, but your friends, so this makes sense, but your mind wasn’t thinking about the specifications of your predicament, but the imperative of your having to throw up as quickly as possible, while looking like someone who would never do such a thing.
But there is no one in here.
You plod to the nearest stall and swing open its door then slam it shut behind you, swallowing back saliva like there is some contest going on and you are being judged on how well you can lock your stall while keeping back the puke you must soon unfurl, and you spin toward the toilet, and you unleash it.
There is a feeling like someone has kicked you in the throat, and this is new. Usually it’s just like a human salad-shooter kind of thing. You open your eyes, also not like usual, and you see that there is blood in this puke, splashing into the dingy toilet water and out of it, splattering onto the porcelain, formerly only tainted by number ones and number twos. You are groundbreaking in this respect.
Your brain creates a thought like, “Jesus Christ,” like it’s such a new concept. Your brain receives this as panic, your throat not understanding what is going on, why this shot of Jameson is so different, why your body has to be different now as a result of it, and your gut is just trying to get it all out. These organs and pathways not even able to have a proper chat because it’s got to get this shit out of you. There’s that feeling like making a huge mistake, the kind where you want to shout, “It’s not my fault!” at your accuser, but it’s your body, and it’s your fault, even if it wasn’t on purpose.
‘My throat is fucked up.’ This is the thought you finally have when all you’re doing is being doubled over a toilet full of blood, and booze, and the last meal you had. You breathe hard as someone else enters the mens’ room, and you flush the toilet, to sound like someone with regular problems, the kind that they can handle. You start to unspool toilet paper and wipe up the parts that flush won’t fix and you think about your throbbing throat, and how your relationship with destroying your body has now become a marriage.
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Bloodshot eyes is a shitty start when you’re trying to pretend you only went into the bathroom to piss, but you like a challenge, so this is what you’re working with. Fake-smiles are super obvious in photographs, but they’re pretty legit in person, and you are in person all night, so you plaster that shit on and step out of the bathroom like maybe you just washed your face too hard or something. You see Shannon and Alexander chatting by the bar, but you do not go over to them. Whether it’s your romanticizing of self-pity, or the illusion of giving respect, you simply nod at Shannon’s mid-conversation wave, her listening to Alex, and you sit at the table with the others, some Neutral Milk Hotel song playing, chosen by someone here who is definitely not a member of your group. Jenkem pulls his beer away from his lips and says, “You okay?” You don’t know what’s made him say this. There is the idea that you just went through something alarming, and this alarm is visible in some way you are not observant enough to have made sure to hide, but this idea makes you too uncomfortable, so you tell yourself he is simply asking because maybe you just took too long, or he is just being nice. Jenkem is a shaggy prepster, considers himself more authentic than the rest of you, but he is nice on a consistent basis, and so it is easy to pretend this is genial kindness and not observant concern.
You nod. “Yeah.”
You don’t try too hard to be convincing, for there is a conversation going on here too, of course. That’s what this is all about. Gutter is seated beside you, he’s holding his beer, though it stands on the table. He’s rubbing the tip of the bottle with his thumb and looking at it, sighs, “I dunno… Anyway, that’s why I only see 3D movies.”
Jenkem shakes his head. “I’ve never seen one.”
Natalie, straw in her mouth, says, “You sound proud, but in, like, the mean way.”
Gutter snorts. “Not seeing a 3D movie is the greatest thing Jenkem has ever done, or will ever do.”
Jenkem smirks sideways and shakes his head again. “I’m just saying. You guys complain about how much movie tickets cost, but they implement a technology ostensibly designed to not only get you to pay, but get you to pay more, so that eventually a regular ticket will cost what you’re paying for a 3D ticket, ‘cause, yeah, you’re obviously willing to pay it.”
Gutter puts up his hands. Gutter has a lot of tattoos, has more than one piercing, dresses like he plays in a Sex Pistols cover band by day and a Ritchie Valens cover band by night. He does neither of these things, he just looks this way. He says, “Jenk, you act like I don’t steal every possible form of media I can. Trust me, I am ripping off the industry at every possible turn, but seeing 3D movies, done well, is like going on a really shitty rollercoaster or something, or going to a really awesome play. So I throw them that bone—I’ll go see their 3D movies.”
Natalie goes, “Isn’t it like triple-crown economics or something? Giving to the bigger fish, and it like, triples down to the smaller fish?”
Jenkem blinks at you and you smile and look away from him. You’re trying to cut down on being mean, but Jenkem is in a different phase, where he sort of ‘lets people have it,’ as diplomatically as he can, and that’s the phase you wish you were in too. You don’t think you’d be able to get away with it, though you’re too afraid to try; plus he thought of it first, so your doing it too would make his doing it look worse.
Natalie says, “What?”
Gutter goes, “You’re a bit dim, sweetie,” and chugs his beer.
Natalie snaps her tongue and says, “Fuck you, Gutter. Asshole.”
He shrugs dramatically as the last of the beer falls into his mouth, and he pulls the bottle away, wipes his lips with the back of his hand, and says, “Uh, you asked.”
Now you laugh and Alex and Shannon have approached, and Shannon goes, “You guys want to head over?”
Gut goes, “Want?” and you smile with your draft at your mouth and he pats you on the shoulder and says, “Just poking at you, bro.”
Today is your girlfriend’s birthday.
Alex goes, “I just don’t want to buy another beer here if Presidente’s has a cover tonight, which I’m pretty sure they do, which I’m pretty sure is ten dollars.”
Gutter rubs his cheek, sneers as he relieves his itchy need to shave, says, “Drinks cost a grip there, too. Fuck it. If we’re going soon then we should just go now so I don’t get used to paying working class prices. It’ll just hurt more later.”
Natalie nods, “I’m fine with that.”
You don’t have a casual-sounding reason to not want to go there yet, or maybe just don’t have casual tone for your bullshit reasons, so you tip back your glass then pack up along with everyone else.
* * * * * ** * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * *
Presidente’s is a place you walk into and immediately want to leave. Probably the people who showed up early wanted to leave because there was not enough people there, and the people who show up late want to go because it’s too packed. Nobody’s a winner here, except maybe in the ‘societal standards’ sense, as they can all afford the exorbitantly-priced atmosphere it is known for, can afford to be happy. You’re old enough that you should be able to afford it too, but you have failed at so many things, have consistently settled for less at every opportunity, that your life is sort of a junior-sized version of others’ in your peer group. You are not something new.
Upon first arriving—the place bathed in ghoulish, purple lights, a world of bodies rubs against one another, the music blasting at your heads as soon as you step inside, everything, at first, seeming to be the dance floor—you are struck with anxiety, like a little god is hanging from the ceiling and threw a courage-debilitating lightening bolt at your chest. You are so used to this feeling, that it is no longer immediately followed by actual terror, instead now just simmers in your heart, slow-cooking your ability to deal with things.
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The roof is a lot looser than the stew of clichés trapped in the main area of the club. There is music but it’s not much louder than the conversation, and there is enough room that you can just stand over here by Jenkem and no one wonders why you are not closer to the main group. It’s because there is all this space.
Plus, you do not want to be near Shelly, though you cannot stop looking at her, the way she can at any moment smile at someone like they just said the best thing she has ever heard, or touch someone like part of what she is saying can only be understood if you can feel how warm she is, and you need to see every moment, because you have to know if you are supposed to be hurting more right now than you were just a second ago. Jenkem elbows your arm gently. You both have switched to mixed drinks. He says, “Um, I think a bunch of us are going camping in a couple weeks. Gutter wants to go. He’s got, like, all this camping equipment. I dunno. I think I’m gonna go. I think everybody. Is going to, I mean.”
You look at him, like, who the fuck is everybody? And he says, “You should come.”
“I’ve never been camping,” you say. The people up on the roof seem to have their shit together even more than the people balling inside. You feel like you’d probably fit in most in the parking lot.
Jenkem snort and goes, “It’s not like I’m fucking Les Stroud or something. I’ve never been camping either.”
You shrug and sip your drink. “I’ll ask Shelly, I guess.”
Jenk chews on ice as the music turns into a rap song famous for being in a recent movie, and so everybody downstairs is probably feeling most like they’re in a movie at this very moment. Jenk says, “You think she’d care? Or, like…would be…interested?”
His first question means ‘do you even think Shelly still cares about you?’ and his second one means ‘jeez, you don’t think she’s gonna wanna come, too, do you?’ You snort and upend your drink. You go, “I’ll let you know, I guess.”
* * * * * * * ** * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * ** * * * * **
Guess what you’re doing right now? Exactly. Packing to go camping.
The prospect of even being asked to spend four days away from the world, in the woods, with you and your friends, must’ve been all Shelly needed to hear to bring you out to get coffee, this morning. This morning is your day off. Well, today is. It’s a Monday. You’re an assistant manager at Chuck E Cheese, so you just get whatever days off that you get. You do not mind this. It’s an excuse to not do things with people, as most activities revolve around the Monday through Friday work schedule. Anyway: coffee.
You guys sat outside of the coffee shop, because you did not want to look like someone who did not appreciate when the weather is nice. There is something about the sun being out and making the day look happy that, if you do not go outside and look as if you care about this, you will come across as the biggest asshole, and when something bad happens to you, people will silently think, like, of course—you don’t appreciate the sun. So you guys take a table outside even though there are still napkins and half-eaten bagels from whoever was sitting there before. You get a huge cup of coffee, like the size of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp, except it’s all warm coffee. You did it to make her laugh, but she didn’t, and that’s how you knew what kind of conversation this was going to be.
Shelly is pretty in a way that it’s almost sad, that there’s just someone this good-looking, but so devoid of whatever a guy like you is looking for in another person; that being compassion, for you. Patience, for you. Eye contact, for—lucky guess—you. The last stop on her Dumping Xavier After Fucking Other People Tour of the county is this coffee shop, to officially break up with you. What you do is sip your coffee and make wounded, sympathetic expressions; what you do is try to make this as easy for her as possible. You just don’t know any better. You let people goad you into an overwhelming need to defend yourself, and then you inch toward such a reaction, only to apologize to them for making you feel your own feelings, I’ll do better next time, I promise, just don’t be mad that I thought of going away, please don’t go away first.
So you are packing because you are once again a solo act, and the wounds are still too fresh for you to find comfort in this solitude, send you spiraling into the blanket of friendship, where you can at least have someone onto which you can smear your digested, nutrient-depleted emotions.
Alex drives. His dad’s got a van, and he borrows it for the trip, you all getting some kind of space, as well as all the supplies you’re bringing with you.
Where you end up is a fairly isolated clearing in the middle of some woods you didn’t even know was there, in this state, on this coast. Maybe it isn’t always. Maybe the universe just took a deep breath and shifted reality so that such a place would make sense, some kind of place for you to go to feel like you don’t exist because it doesn’t exist either.
Obviously you’re still stuck with you. You’re still stuck with wondering why you and Alex and Shannon don’t get along the way you used to. Why they get along better than they ever did, and why it’s easy for you to stare at him, stare at her, even when neither one is saying anything to you, or anyone, or doing anything that requires your attention, wondering why you feel like there’s no such thing, when it comes to them, that doesn’t. How the hurting of this understanding is why you don’t bother seeing them, how it’s likely just the residue of some bigger, wandering feeling, the one where you can’t just like someone a little bit—they’ve got to be sturdy enough to hitch a wagon to, even if you spend every getting-to-know-you moment telling yourself your wagon is fine just where it is. Natalie is sitting on what can best be described as a ‘picnic banket’, playing with her iPad; Alex and Shannon are building a fire, for cooking, not because you need it (Shannon is building a fire, Alex is drinking a beer); Jenk is tuning his guitar, for god knows what reason (you know why, you just can’t believe he brought his guitar here!); Gutter is sort of surveying the land, everywhere woods, woods, dead leaves, matted grass, the colorful, pitched tents you all brought with you. He’s drinking a beer; he’s wearing all black, to match his tattoos. His oscillating gaze lands on you, watching him. Watching everyone, but it’s his turn, so. He snorts. “Kahn, you okay?” You panic at the idea that you somehow need special attention (you do), and you sit up straighter in your lawn chair, overcompensate with a too-earnest, “Yeah, man.” He grins at you. “Word. You wanna go for a walk? I wanna show you something. I wanna show somebody something.” Of everyone here, you and Gutter have spent the least time together, cumulatively, but you get excited anyway. You grin. You go for a walk with Gutter. Where he takes is to what he calls a bluff and to what you don’t know better than to call anything else; some impossible body of water, where too-blue water crashes against rock, and, beyond that, the earth stretches toward its end, rippling liquid separating you from the lives at the other end. You shake your head, walk toward a banister separating you from hurting yourself, Gut hangs back, goes, “It’s kinda rad, right?” You snort. “How is this here?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s supposed to be.” You take a deep breath, and it’s cold, and it soothes your throat, which has been killing you, since that night, at the bar. Just one in a series of thing that are killing you. “No kidding,” you say, finally, in response to Gutter’s response to you. “It’s beautiful either way,” he says. “I agree,” you say. “It’ll be warmer tomorrow. We’ll go down. If you want. Like, go in. If it’s still here.” You turn to look back at him and he’s grinning, and you laugh. You head back to camp, happy to have slipped into a pocket where you’re laughing at your thoughts and so therefore look like someone with happiness to share with others, instead of a person looking to borrow some. You just need to be seen this way for a moment, with another person, by other people, before immediately giving yourself permission to shut your mouth and put your head down, and you are, as you step back into the clearing, and you do, as the others ask you where you’ve been.
“What’s the difference??”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does.”
“Why does it matter? Let’s get the fucking good stuff, huh? I’ve got to eat this, and so do you.”
“We’re just washing it down, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll meet it again, when we’re spewing it on the bathroom floor on our way to the toilet, too late for the bowl itself, but just barely. Then we’ll eat too many fish sticks, then we’ll go to bed. It matters because this isn’t a pay week. It matters because they’re selling the same fucking orzo a shelf below for half the price, only they’re calling it rice.”
“You cheap cunt.”
“Oh, alright, settled that, then. You know, not all of our father’s are amateur pornographers, love. Some of us have to work for our liquor and pasta.”
You’re too paranoid about your new haircut to even be a part of their conversation. Anders is always complaining about how much stuff costs and Anna is always calling someone a cunt, so you’re really just a prop in their perpetual loop, set dressing, an extra, the driver, having shown up to Anders’s place later than you thought you would, due to laziness, and traffic, and the general drag of the week being over, but having lapped you, coming back again, soon; you were greeted by the sound of the two of them yell-laughing at each other, yammering at you that they’re nearly out of booze, would you cook them dinner if they paid?; would you drive them to the store for the ingredients to both? Your mood all day was one in which every little thing anyone said or did felt like a reason to believe you were actually losing this game—the life one; like you were the kind of thing someone knew, just by looking, not to respect, or not to get close to, or like too much, or let like them too much, or appreciate. As the day went on, though, you noticed your thoughts were growing more and more acerbic, less appreciative of even those around you willing to show kindness, to suggest your company was something they enjoyed, only focused on the mistakes you were making; as the day went on, you noticed maybe it was you, how accustomed you’d grown to desiring things you could spend all day looking at, but could never imagine experiencing; this isn’t something as pedestrian as being loved by that which you objectify—this is perhaps even more pedestrian, than even that; things like some smiling because of something near you, and not something inside of you; and a future of fulfillment, of being a person who isn’t given smiles sprinkled with a confused sort of pity, like, “Why aren’t you doing better?” You don’t know why. Even your haircut—acquired this afternoon, after work—could be better. You can’t stop touching it. They can’t stop arguing. You grab the first box of pasta your mind can focus on while segueing from this bit of out-zoning—they’re spirals. “You’re buying meat for this,” you tell them, marching down the aisle. “And cheese. I’m not just having carbs for dinner, not if you insist on arguing, not if you’re paying.” You’re not mad, and they can tell. You just want to be drinking like they’ve been, to not be bombarded with yourself, in the form of dealing with them; they can tell that, too. They follow you down the aisle, Anna patting you on the head, instead of just asking you why you’re doing it to yourself.
Ricky is doing his thing where he white-boy dances in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom, trying on the clothes he just bought. It’s kind of late, so you’re already in bed, reading, for fun, since finals are over and you’re allowed to be friends with books again, instead of just sneering and rolling your eyes at them, alternately highlighting things you need to remember and writing hateful comments in the margins for whoever buys them used after you’ve had your way with them. The heat in your apartment is all fucked up, so you can either be as cold as it is outside, or you can be way too hot, and you go guys are going with the latter. You don’t complain about Ricky doing this, let him play the music a little too loud, even though your neighbors are home, because you’re pretty sure he gets turned on by looking at himself repeatedly put on then take off his clothes, which means you’ll probably get to have sex with him at least once this evening, another thing finals took away from you. You bought some stuff at the mall, too, but it was mostly Christmas stuff for your family, cheap stuff, since you have a lot of nieces and nephews, courtesy of your brothers, who keep having kids, with no regard for whether others will be able to afford to buy them gifts. Ricky isn’t expected to buy his family gifts, as they don’t really celebrate Christmas as much as they endure it, spending the holiday together because everyone else is busy doing so with their own families. You’re both poor, Ricky having recently been laid-off from the record store where he worked, which finally went under, after five years of trying to fight off the proposed building of the Walmart that finally came, taking his and many other jobs away. Neither of you can really afford the trip you took to the mall today, but you figured you’d get by. But you got pulled over today, and the cop informed you that your vehicle was not registered, this being your first car, you not realizing that vehicles have to be registered every year, and aren’t, like, registered for life, or, like, every four years, like your license. Also, you didn’t have your insurance card on you, so they towed your car. You basically spent the day with your friend Jermaine, going to the DMV, going to the lot where they took your car, Jermaine explaining to you how your fines will “fist you so hard, bro, it’s insane,” your budget for the next couple of months completely eviscerated, all because you were stuck at the wrong red light, in front of a cop, who ran your plates, out of boredom. You got home to Ricky washing the dishes, which he never does, and nodding at you, shutting off the water. “What’s up?” You shrugged. “Dishes, huh?” He shrugged. “Boredom. And the smell. Where you been?” “I, um, they needed me to stay a little later and finish up some stuff, before the holiday. Office bullshit.” “Oh.” You’re a coward when it comes to Ricky. You’d die for the kid, and spent one summer, in high school, having fantasy conversations with the person you thought he was, the person you needed someone to be, and that he fit perfectly, from across the hall, or, like, changing, in gym class. You’re equals now, kinda, you feel, but you’re still afraid of letting him down, more than anyone, more than the god you were raised to believe in, who Ricky’s replaced. Ricky nodded, bored even with the dishes now. “We still on for tonight?” Ricky’s been down ever since getting laid off. He’s probably gonna have to get a gig at the Walmart, or maybe somewhere on campus, when school starts back up; your rent isn’t very steep, but you can’t do more than a month or two fronting him—but you don’t want to let him down, know that his spoiled self might smile a little more just by being inside of a mall for at least a half an hour, plus it’s Christmas; that means something, even if only on a nostalgic, emotional level, and you nodded. “Yeah, we’re still on.”
Ricky puts his new clothes, having tested their fit—mostly, what they look like when he’s flexing his biceps or nodding his head at things, with a stern expression—so he can wash them, before actually wearing them out. “Everything still clothes?” you ask, and he grins at you, in his thermal underwear, opens the bedroom door. “You’re still off tomorrow, right?” You nod, not sure if you should still pretend to be interested in reading right now. “Drink a beer with me? And then, like, whatever?” You snort. “Yeah.”
Then someone is knocking on your apartment door. You try to remember if the glass door in the front of the building was ajar when you came home from the mall—sometimes it is, and so people don’t bother getting buzzed up, just come to visit—you try to think of the mild handful of friends you have, and what they’re probably doing right now, and the person knocks again—it’s not an angry knock, it’s not a friendly knock; he or she knocks like they’re not going away until you answer, but like they know you will, like they know they won’t have to go away. Neither you or Ricky is what might be called ‘dressed’ right now. “Maybe it’s our parents,” Ricky says, smiling at you. You swing you legs off the bed, grab your shirt off the floor, make sure your boxers don’t have any holes in them, of any kind, and you go to the door, look for your slippers en route, but do not find them. “Who is it??” You ask the door this, try to figure out what the wrong answer might be, and the door says, “It’s Patois. Lenny, I mean.” Lenny is your friend, from school—from this semester—and you open the door, wince at him, like you’ve got the black eye, the hair matted down with sweat, the split lip, though all of these things belong to him. “Jesus…” “Nah, it’s just me. Wocka wocka. Can I come in?” He looks over his shoulder, like he expects someone to come down the hall after him, someone unwanted, and you go, “Yeah,” step out of the way, “come in.”
There’s a six-pack of Magic Hat in the fridge (a beer Ricky’s somehow managed to cultivate into his favorite, after only having been alive nineteen years, largely thanks to, you think, his father) and each of you has one, Lenny sitting on the love seat, alone, you and your Rick sitting on the couch opposite it, as Lenny explains how he came about a redecorated face.
“My dad…he’s in a…he’s in a thing, a business. And there are families in this business. And when there’s a conflict, involving a member of one of the families…it’s not always resolved with talking. There are favors that need to be done, and, if these favors can’t be carried out, then certain people might get hurt.”
You pull your beer from your lips. Ricky looks at you, looks at Lenny. “People like who?”
Lenny puts his arms up, as if to say ‘who do you think?’ You guys gave him an ice pack, but it’s sitting, unused, on the coffee table. You shake your head. “Lenny, just fucking tell us what happened. I don’t mean to curse. You’re fucking shaking…”
He got roughed up by associates of his father. Next time, they told him, it would be his old man they deal with, and it won’t be the kind of thing where they ever see each other again. “What do they want.” “One of the other families, they…they ripped off some supplies from the boss…from my father’s boss’s warehouse, the job he’s in charge of, where all of his income comes from. It’s a lucrative job. It pays for my school, it pays for most of our house. He’s gotta bring an envelope to the boss with a certain percentage of what comes outta this job, but he trusted the wrong guy, and this guy went to one of the other families, one of the families who don’t like my dad’s boss, and he gave him information about a shipment, and that shipment got ripped off. This is months of revenue I’m talkin about. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, y’know?” You nod. Ricky’s still only wearing his thermal underwear. Lenny goes, “And the boss is asking for that money back, and my dad’s being a hardass. He’s been made…er, like, he’s been a part of this for a long time. Since before I was born, and he’s being prideful. That, and we don’t have the money. We got a fraction of it, but we don’t have it, and that’s what they want. That, or my father’s fucking head. That, or…” Ricky scoots forward to the edge of the couch. “That or what?” Lenny looks you in the eyes. You met Lenny in creative writing class, the first day of the semester. You guys spent the whole day ignoring the professor, making fun of everyone in the room who wasn’t you. You wanted to pay attention but Lenny wouldn’t let you, how much he talked, and you loved it. You’d been cut off from most people who weren’t Rick, and you forgot what it felt like to make new friends, not that you had too many, not that you had any, once everyone went away to their respective schools. ‘You keep talking,’ you told him. He pointed to the professor. ‘So does he,’ he said, and you laughed, and, before you knew it, you had someone to hang out with on campus, as most of Ricky’s classes were in the day, yours at night. You look at your beer. It’s almost empty. You’re nervous having Lenny here. You’re worried about what Ricky thinks of this, this dude with the busted up face, how comfortable you are with each other. You go, “Or, what, dude?” Lenny goes, “Or he can hit the other family back. They’ve got a construction job, upstate. They’re bullshitting the union, but they’ve got a ton of money coming out of it. If…something were to happen to it, they’d get the hint. They want my dad to do it, but we’re going to Boston, to see my grams, for Christmas. Meaning…they want it done soon, and if he stays behind, they’ll know it’s him, and they’ll come after him. They can’t hit me—this is the worst they can do to me; it’s, like, the rules, or whatever, I dunno; it’s just the rules—but if they know it’s him, they’ll come after him. The other family. But if…if we go away for the weekend, and it happens anyway, then there’s no one man they can pin it on, then the boss’ll write off my dad’s debt—for a mistake, for thinking someone was his friend, who turned out not to be…if…if it happens, then it’s family against family, instead of a whole crew against my pop, and me. And my little sister. And my mom. I was born into this, ya know? We…he made a mistake.” Ricky takes your finished beer from your hand, trades it with his half-drank bottle. You go, “Thanks.” You go, “I don’t understand what you want us to do.” Ricky sighs. “He doesn’t want us to do anything.” Ricky stands, and you sit up straighter, look up at him. “Are you mad at me?” He shakes his head. “No. But I know what’s coming. I’m gonna go lay down, though. I’ll be awake when you’re done.” “This isn’t you mad? Dude…” He laughs. “I’m not.” He runs a hand through your hair, and you grab said hand, kiss it. Lenny turns to look at your television, which is not on. He can see the room’s reflection in it, so it doesn’t really help. He chugs his beer instead. When Ricky’s gone, you turn to your friend, go, “So what is it?” Lenny licks his lips, winces at the pain coming from somewhere on his body; he touches his ribs, so maybe it’s from that. Without looking at you, he says, “We’ll give you the money we have so far, to pay back the boss, if you take down the construction job.” “If I what??” He looks at you now. “If you take down the job. Jermaine told me about what you did in Cancun last year, or wherever. That, like, you’re an expert with molotov cocktails. You took down an entire cartel by yourself.” “Fucking Jermaine. His gabbing ass was there!” “He said you did all the work. And those dudes had guns. No one’s gonna be on the site Christmas day. You go in, burn the place down, make fifty grand, cash. They’re gonna kill my dad, dude. My dad…he’s not a bad guy. My mom needs to leave his ass, but he’s never laid a hand on me, or my sister. He once told me the only thing that gets him out of bed in the morning is me. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen your dad cry, but…it sucks. He doesn’t…he knows about this, but he hasn’t seen me. But he okay’d it. This. What I’m saying to you. You’re the only one I know who’s ever fought for anything. For, like, love. You’re the only one I know that’s ever really loved anything. I know fighting for me isn’t the same as fighting for him, but…I think I know what that might feel like. To be afraid to find out what it would feel like, to go from a life with someone to a life without them. Like, someone you see everyday, and then never again…all he’s ever seen me do is fuck up. I’ve never been in love, not in the way where somebody loves me back. And I’ve never been any good at anything I’ve actually had the balls to try. I spent all this time acting like it would happen one day, and whatever happened would justify my even being here, and the trouble it took to feed me, and…I wanna pay it back, ya know? But I can’t do it. I need time. I need more than just cramming a buncha false hope into this weekend. I need your help.”
Lenny sleeps on your couch tonight. Ricky looks at you when you enter the bedroom. He’s reading your book—you guys do that. You read the same book, using two different book marks. He wasn’t much of a reader before you, but he reads faster than you now. You tell him it’s because you like to savor it, but you don’t actually know why it works that way. He thinks you’re smart, and so you say stuff to trick him into thinking this is true. You crawl onto the bed, onto him, lay your head on his stomach, and he puts the bed onto the bed, on the spot where you sleep. He puts his book-holding hands on your body—one in your hair, one scratching your back. “What did you say?” Your eyes are closed. You don’t even really smell him anymore. You used to inhale him from across the room, but now he’s just something your body knows is there, doesn’t make a big deal about. “I said I would do it.” You feel his body rock a bit; he’s nodding. “Are we gonna be okay?” You inhale, exhale. “I love you.” He snorts. “Is that a no.” “No. We’re gonna be good, I think. I got pulled over today. They took my car.” “We drove your car to the mall.” “I know. Before that.” He rocks again, nodding, stops rubbing and scratching, keeps his hands where they are. “It doesn’t matter.” You nod. “I know.” “You shouldn’t sleep on me like this, though.” “I won’t.” “You can stay as long as you want, though.” “I know. I will.” “Okay.”
You mostly avoid fights because you just do not trust what you look like throwing a punch, and you don’t want to end up in a video, under the headline ‘Homo Fights’ or ‘Hipster Gets Ass Kicked After Punching Like Toddler’, or whatever. You figure getting punched in the head, you can get used to—you imagine it’s like getting into a cold pool, awful at first, then barely noticeable—but the muscle memory of your arm flailing in the air with the intention of hurting someone who might then scoff at you and tell a you-should’ve-seen-this-kid-bro story to his friends is simply too much for you to bare, and so there is this pacifism, developed when you were too big of a pussy to ever say something that might be considered worth fighting about, or offensive, or, like, audible. Now you are cursed with the inability to not speak your fucking mind, and it is the worst, especially since, now that you take part in conversations, and believe in the way your mind works, you have discovered that most people are pretty awful. And so it was only a matter of time before your awfulness would clash with theirs in a tawdry display of fisticuffs, and this inevitability came to pass today, a couple blocks from your neighborhoods annual block party for breast cancer awareness, where you were smoking the tail-end of a joint with Samantha, your conspirator this afternoon, as your other friends are in relationships, and one half of each couple would not be caught dead here, despite the seven kegs, and so halves that might’ve enjoyed themselves didn’t show up, either, to avoid romantic discord. The guy was about your size, maybe an inch or so shorter, but about the same weight. Right now you’re digging your sunglasses out of the gutter, in front of some stranger’s house—they were a hundred dollar impulse buy, these sunglasses, and Samantha insists you shouldn’t just leave there, says she will help you dig them out, which is mostly her on her knees beside you, giggling, as you stick your arm in the sewer.
So: you turned from Betty Yarin and her friends, who were doing one of their dance routines, to a Skrillex song, not as part of the show, one of the perks granted to those who paid for a ticket to the block party, but because they are show-offs with a captive audience, and you turned to Sam, and you said, “Uhhh…” and Sam did a wibble-wobble baby-dance to mock them for having worked hard on learning something you’re not in the mood to appreciate, and you said, “Maybe, when the song changes, I’ll go out there and show them the accidentally-spill-wine-on-my-shirt-while-updating-my-Tumblr dance I’ve been working on. It’s pretty legit.” “That’s more of a late-night thing, no?” “You’re right. I’ll wait a couple hours.” The block party is mostly confined to a cul-de-sac, and is filled with people, most of them old enough to drink, with various kegs positioned around the area, a table of snack way off to one side, coolers filled with sober drinks lined up beside it. Pizzas were supposed to be showing up soon. You were saving yourself for those. You and Sam stood, holding your cups and judging people from the adopted vantage point of her driveway, toward the peak of the cul-de-sac’s curve. You figured, as long as you kept each other laughing, people wouldn’t think you were weird, for keeping to yourselves, pretending you were alone with each other, but not even really looking at each other, looking at everything else, for a couple seconds at a time, before moving on to the next thing, except smiling, so therefore just as normal as the grandmas playing the bean-bag toss thing way over that way, or bros and bitties playing beer pong on dual tables much closer to this way. Or the people dancing, or whoever. The weather was nice. Is nice. You are having a very ‘global warming’ style winter, and you are into it. Last year this time, you had to keep a shovel in your car; now, you’re safe leaving your hoodie at home. It’s almost reassuring, knowing the earth will simply wash away in a sea of ice caps one day, since you’re not really doing a whole lot with your life, and, this way, it’ll be like no one ever did.
Samantha started talking to you about requesting a song from the DJ, not as a joke, but because she actually wanted to hear it, and the DJ had already made it clear he will play anything, as further evidenced by his transitioning from dubstep to what was either Lynard Skynard or the Band, you couldn’t tell, as the vocals hadn’t kicked in yet, and you looked at the house before which the DJ and his crew were set up, trying to remember who lived there, the Yuengling belly-dancing through your veins, when the front door to that house opens, and you remember—“Billy.” Hm?” Then Sam sees. “Oh. Jeez, it’s maybe a little colder than he thinks it is.” William Sansone—Billy—not wearing a shirt, pads out of the front door of his parents house, eyes marijuana-inspired slits, laughing through two rows of perfectly set teeth, his smile like a Maybach grill for his symmetrical features, his square jaw, tossing hair from his face, locks about as long as Sam’s, resting on shoulders that could carry the burden of all the world’s problems, you’re sure of it. You and Sam went to state school, which is what pushed the two of you closer together—Billy graduated with you, but ended up not going anywhere, his parents making too little to pay tuition for the school to which he was accepted, making too much for FASFA to do anything about it. He works for the city in some way—you’ve driven by him, paving over potholes one day, setting up cones around downed electrical wires another. You knew he lived in one of these houses, you just didn’t know which one. His two friends gave each other bro shoves as they stumbled out of the house after him, pulling the front door closed, making their way to the center of the get-together, where Betty Yarin and her girls are stand, waving to them. One of them—one of the dudes, one of Billy’s friends—looking like he needed a nap, like what a former, myth-oriented world would say required a cup of coffee, or a shower. Most of these people have been drinking all day, so this made sense to you. You looked at Samantha, who was checking her cell phone for something. “You wanna smoke?” She shrugged. “Where?” You You touch the fifth pocket of your jeans—your one-hitter is still there. “Down the street, I guess. Before the pizza gets here…” She nodded, knocked back her beer, not wanting to bring her Solo cup out of the perimeter of the party, into the real world, where cops care about stuff. “Sure.” You looked back at Billy, and his friends, his more inebriated friend getting into some sort of whisper argument with one of the girls, someone who clearly expected better of this person, this boy getting angry, his friend grabbing his arm, muttering into his ear, trying to get him to walk away, to calm down, Billy simply scoping out the scene, his eyes suddenly resting on you, the only boy obviously staring at him, his disciplined torso and his perpetual grin, and you looked away, pretending something else mattered to you. Like the grass. Yeah. It’s pretty green. You try to make a manly face, imagining that such a thing exists, so that Billy, if he’s still watching you, might think that your eyes only look at things for reasons a father might, appraising them, but not desiring them, not wishing they belonged to him, would be some version of himself that he could touch, and understand in a way that would help him make sense of himself. “Are we not smoking? You got me all in that head space now. My brain is all thinking it was born high and needs to go back to where it belongs.” You nodded, lowered your sunglasses. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
Your one-hitter is shaped and colored like a cigarette, and you smoke it at the bus-stop, on the corner, down the street, and around the corner, hiding in plain sight, as you do. There’s no one waiting for the bus, and your town is light on cops, so you pass the pipe back and forth without stress, becoming okay with being here, smiling at your thoughts without actually expressing them to each other. “It’s your boys,” Sam said, after a couple of minutes of you zoning out on a prescription bottle someone driving by casually tossed out of their driver’s side window, which sat quietly in the street, waiting for something new to do. You were sitting on the waiting bench, or whatever they call it. You looked up at her. “Hm?” She nodded over your shoulder, and you looked to your right, and you saw Billy’s two friends walking down the street, the angry one stumbling as his friend did his best to hold him up, obviously on their way home, or whatever spot at which round 2 would be taking place. You looked for Billy, but he wasn’t there. “We should go back,” you said, the party suddenly gaining purpose with the exodus of these two, neither of whose name you could remember. ‘It’s the weed,’ you thought. ‘I know their names, but my brain doesn’t care right now.’ Samantha stood, stretched, her body shuddering. “Wanna eat a little then go? I don’t think I’ll folks’ll miss us and…my thoughts…” she pointed a finger to he temple and twirled it “…I think they don’t wanna be here anymore.” Yours either. You nodded, scooted forward, preparing to stand. “Yeah. We can go now if you want, too. It’s getting co—” And the boys reached you, the inebriated one reaching out a hand, toward Sam, who had her back to them, flinched, spun around, as her ass was pinched. “What the fuck? You lose something?” The ass-pincher just grinned at her, his friend sighing, “Donner, come on…” Donner, the touchy one, grinned bigger, his face littered with acne scars. “Sammy! When’d you get an ass?” “Probably the same day you became one, asshole.” You said this. The chemicals maybe speaking for you, but you said this. “Fuck.” You said this, too. ‘I’m standing,’ you thought, looking down at yourself, realizing this was true. Sam looked over her shoulder, at you, impressed, but not quite proud. “Dude…” she said, and Donner, rocking a flannel and blood-shot eyes, took a step toward you. “Excuse me?” “Nothing.” “Are you sure?” “Donner, let’s go.” “No. I don’t wanna be rude. This one’s got something to say. Right? If I misheard, of course, I apologize, but I’m pretty good at this kinda stuff, and honestly seemed like you had something to say to me. So…what was it, exactly?” Sam took a step back, so that she was standing beside you, her arms folded across her chest. You slid the one-hitter back into your pocket. “Nothing.” “You didn’t call me an asshole?” You licked your lips. You suddenly weren’t hungry anymore, or high, or thirsty. “Just…it might…you shouldn’t treat girls one way, and guys another, just because you think she can’t do anything about it.” “Donner! Come on! We got things to do.” Donner smiled at you, and you thought he might be handsome if his personality didn’t ooze from his pores the way it did. You feel the same way about yourself sometimes. You don’t know if this thought did something to your face, to the way you looked at him, but you know he swung on you right then, and you know it hurt. You don’t know what he was aiming for, but you know he hit you in the chin, a left hook, sending your body stumbling into a yelping Samantha, who backed out of your way, as you panicked, and dove into him, Donner (who graduated when you were a freshman, your mind finally catching on to the life it’s led), your bodies moving from the sidewalk to the street, his knee coming up to jab at your ribs, your ribs taking the hit, your teeth clenching, your heart charging like a bullet train, your face getting flush and your deodorant seeming to sting your armpits, your mind waiting for it, the thing you never wanted to do to anyone, chose to be the kind of person no one would ever do it to, but somehow failed, somehow became a person who was asking for it, and you shoved Donner away from you, his friend shouting, “Dude! Come on!,” Donner charging you, you tucking back your left arm, tightening a fist, launching both toward this boy’s handsome face, contorting your own into the manly grimace you appropriated back in Sam’s driveway, your oh-no face. And bam. His fucking head rocking back as your fist slams into his nose, blood spattering like you asked it to, someone grabbing you from behind, to keep you from inflicting further damage, or receiving any, Donner’s boy doing the same to him, your foot hit something on the ground (your sunglasses, skittering into the gutter), as you’re dragged back to the bench, the arms around you warm, as you look down, see the tan of them, and the hair littering them, and you realize this is not Sam saving you a trip to the emergency room, but, as he lets go, and steps in front of you, Billy, going, “Shit, you okay? He’s fucking drunk. I’m sorry, like, for him. He’s a sweetheart in real life, I promise.” You just looked at him, nodded dumbly. “I’m okay.” “You sure?” Up close, his face was the kind of thing you’re supposed to write reports about, one you’d need a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary, and lube to honestly compose. You could only imagine the cartoon hearts forming in your eyes, bursting from your chest, the human Care Bear you are. You sniffed, your jaw aching. You answered his question. “Yeah. Thank you. You’re…um, thank you.” He smiled, reminding you what was missing. “It’s cool. Nice punch.” You grinned. “I didn’t mean it.” “I know. It’s okay. He had it coming, so.” You shrugged, wiped your hand on your shoulder, forgetting the wetness there was blood. “Who doesn’t?” you said, and he laughed, “Tell me about it,” and went to go yell at his friends, who were already walking away. You waved goodbye, though they were no longer facing you, and Sam was with you again, and your life was what it was again, only now your hand hurt, your face, and you weren’t afraid to fight anymore.
Gordon stops you from pulling open the sliding door. Your brain focuses on the shouted conversations in the other room, and the indie music turned just loud enough to shout over.
“Hey,” he says, Gordon. The tone is such that you are required to say ‘hey’ back, not such that you are supposed to shut up and listen to something he has to say. You go, “Hey.”
“Can I ask you a question that…I guess it might make me seem weird? Or that, like, might ‘be’ weird. I don’t know if there’s a difference…or if one being true makes the other true.” You snort—it’s meant to have the same affect as smiling politely—and you do a thing where your eyes rapidly dart in slightly different directions, the focus of each movement a different part of the body occupying the space before you. You go, “Sure.”
He goes, “It feels kinda like you’re avoiding me.” You do an actual polite-smile, but you’re fairly certain it’s drenched in a noticeable anxiety, because everything running through your veins right now is having a nerve-wracking affect on your internal world—it feels like when grade-school kids dump a bunch of paint together to make the color brown—your body’s just dumping any emotion it has until it finds the way you’re supposed to feel right now. You hate that this might be something that this person knows is happening to you right now. You go, “No, I’m just…I gotta get up early, so…therefore the leaving early…”
There’s a thing people like you do, where they think saying any old words will be sufficiently adequate, no matter what question they were asked, or how important it is that they tell the truth. ‘People like you’ means people who know they won’t be called out when they are being half-assed—people see that you are doing it, but don’t say anything, maybe assuming you are doing it for a good reason. Sometimes nothing is more important than getting things back to normal, and not talking about it is a good way to do that. It’s important to surround oneself with people who are willing to play along. He nods, “Okay, well… I’m glad you came, so.” You make as if you’re going towards the door again, but he doesn’t let go of it. Through your peripherals, you can see some randoms standing on the street outside. This causes your anxiety to surge further, just being aware that these people know where you are, even if they don’t know who you are. You go, “Look—” and he moves in to kiss you, and for the split-second that you allow it, the logic is that you need to be comforted, and maybe this will do it, but for every moment that follows, starting with you pushing him away (his hand still on the door), the logic is that this will make things worse. This kissing becoming a habit. It will make every thing worse, every little thing. You can’t let him get used to this, no matter the cost.
You go, “Fucking…stop, okay? Stop. I have a girlfriend, Gordon. Jesus.” He had been looking at you like you were an exciting natural wonder just a moment ago, now he’s looking at you the way he looks at everyone else: like, why are you even here? He says, “You didn’t last week?” He says it like you’re supposed to hit him for it, which, you don’t know why he says it like that. I guess people used to getting hit just assume everyone’s gonna do it. You go, “Whatever, dude.” He goes, “Look, just…when you leave here, can you just do me a favor?” You sigh. “What?” You feel like you suddenly have grounds to be belligerent, even though you started this whole mess. Anxiety and rage can feel awfully similar at night, with alcohol in your veins. He says, “Can you just…not be one of those people, who like, assumes that…being desirable makes them more human than the people who…who’re drawn to them, or…whatever, just the people who might find themselves thinking they need them.” You lean your weight on your other foot and tilt your head back, and you go, “Gordon, what the fuck are you talking about?” You say this instead of leaving. He says, “I honestly don’t know, but that’s really all I wanted to say. It’s okay if we were never friends, and it’s okay if you have to leave here and tell yourself that I’m…I dunno, forcing…like, that I created something you never wanted just by existing…or forced an idea on you, or tried to…” He sighs and shakes his head, takes his hand off the door. You go, “Tried to what? Say what you mean…” He shrugs. “I dunno. Tried to… I dunno.” You sigh now. You say, “Stop being an asshole. C’mere.” You put your arms around him, and he does the same, only half-assed. He feels disinvited from your life, like perhaps any further kindness on your behalf is simply a formality, a way to keep him sedate, so that he will not cause you more trouble than he may already have. You’re thinking, true or not, a person can make a series of decisions that say all anyone needs to know, whether it’s really what you were trying to say or not. Sometimes it boils down to this: will you be there or not? No amount of consoling will make ‘no’ something that doesn’t burn going down. You’re thinking this is maybe no one’s fault. People have expectations that one thing will always lead to another, but sometimes it’s just that one thing, and dealing with it is your problem, not the world’s. Or, maybe your knowing that it’s a problem with the world is your problem… It’s affecting you, so you have to deal with it. You figure there are people who have what it takes to make the problems of others their own, but you are smart enough to know you are not that person. You could grow into him, but he is not standing in front of this glass door tonight. When you pull away, he says, “I’m sorry I…let us. Ya know?” You pat his arm. “No, I was being wasted, and a coward, and I knew you would… Gordon, I’m…” you lower your voice, say, “I’m not…gay, okay? We can’t…we can’t.” He looks down at your Chuck Taylors and nods and goes, “Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Something he told you his mother does, that he vowed to himself to never do, was make statements designed to make people feel bad about themselves when they reflected upon them later. But he just did that. It’s a thing people do to avoid feeling the full force of whatever’s going on in their head.
What’s so bad about crying that people will burn down everything around them just to avoid having to do it? Then they’ll fucking cry after the fire’s been set! Just fucking get it over with while you have the chance to salvage some bit of the thing you’re trying not to lose; it’s not quantum physics. It’s rather simple.
He takes a step back and put his hands in his pockets, and since his vision is blurry now, because of tears, he keeps his eyes pointed downward. In your presence, this will probably just have to be the way. Never mind that looking at you kept him alive up until a minute ago; sometimes people just have to live with being dead kinda. He goes, “I should go back to everybody else. They’re probably worried I, like, fell in the toilet or something. That’s like a thing that’s going around, I think. That I do that.” You snort. This snort is mostly real amusement, and expressed outside of just internal acknowledgement of being amused in order to make him feel better, because seeing you happy used to do that to him, used to let him know that there was enough happiness to go around, but you’re pretty sure that’s over now.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I started to hate celebrating birthdays. Okay. Like, the exact day, not the exact moment. Ummmm, also, I don’t ‘hate’ my birthday (that would be sort of impossible, unless you were basically conditioned, from an early age, to do so, which, you have to assume, some people have been? I’m not one of those people, though).
Anyway, what I mean is, I can name the birthday that made me realize the ‘gift’ of gaining maturity is sort of like if the Tooth Fairy, instead of leaving a dime, or something, under your pillow, simply came through your window, walked up to said pillow, lifted it, grabbed your dead tooth, ashed her cigarette in the spot where the tooth used to be, then took her ass straight home, or, like, to a pub for a couple shots before drunk dialing her ex-boyfriend and asking him if he remember what holding her felt like. It’s like, wait—I’m just getting fucking old, aren’t I?
What I’m saying is, my thirteenth birthday was—I don’t wanna say ‘the last good one’, because, as things change, what qualifies as good changes, and if what happened on my fifth birthday, which was awesome, happened to me now, I’d be like, what the fuck is this shit? ya know?—whatever, my thirteenth birthday was the first one that featured the other facet of the day you were born, the facet that isn’t ‘celebrating life’, the facet that is ‘acknowledging mortality’.
And it’s not because I was some deep fucking thirteen year old. If you must know, I drank from a baby bottle until I was, like, six years old. So, I’m not exactly ahead of the curve, is what I’m saying. But my dad died that year. He wasn’t a perfect person, so it wasn’t like when a celebrity dies, and it’s all, you worshiped them because you didn’t know them. I knew my dad, and so I knew how fucked up he could be, how fucked up he could get. Fucked up enough to drive into oncoming traffic, and crash into the trailer of a mack truck, a mack truck that tried to swerve out of the way, and so only the tires smashed into my dad, sending his car spinning out, disorienting him, causing him to get out of his car, getting him hit by another car, driven by someone not expecting to see a man standing in the middle of the highway. This is the sort of thing that makes your house quiet, that makes your mom up her meds, that let’s you get away with a lot of shit, but also makes you not want to. My older sister got into a lot of trouble before the accident, but after, she just pretty much did what she was told, as if she was afraid Misfortune was making the rounds; like, next time something fucked up needed to happen to someone, she wanted to be okay with the kind of person she was, with her life. She didn’t want to be asking for it.
How I knew my sister’s boyfriend was annoyed by this change, is how he stopped coming in the house when he’d pick her up, when they had plans or whatever. He’d get out the car, he’d ring the bell, but he would not step foot in the house. People who are on the same team deal with things together—this was the hardest thing she’d probably ever have to go through, and it was obvious he had decided that it was her problem, not his. He still wanted her attentions, and her body (someone’s body is them as much as their mind is them), but he didn’t want the death that had started going on their dates with them. He didn’t want the graveyard our home had become.
I went to school on that birthday, even though my mom told me I didn’t have to. We didn’t have a lot of money for gifts and stuff, which I was okay with. I’ve never really been much for stuff. My friends always had cool things, but I didn’t mind not having—that, coupled with my shyness, made me come across as if I had more important things on my mind, like I cared about more than material things, even if it really just meant I was poor, or at least getting there, day by day. On the way home, I could see Landon was on the stoop, waiting for Emily to come outside. I think she sometimes made him wait longer on purpose. I remember liking Landon before my dad died, but after, I realized I think I probably more liked looking at him, and thinking about him, liked thinking about great people and imagining he was one of them. This is probably what my sister liked about him as well, as well as the sex, obviously. Once, him and my sister were in the backyard, and I was bringing out the trash, and I must’ve stared at him the entire time that I did it, because, before I went inside, he grinned at me and said, “Damn, kid. You can’t take your eyes of me, huh?” I was embarrassed, because I somehow thought people didn’t notice when I was staring at them (seriously, I thought this), and also because I didn’t want him to know that he was something I thought about, because he was much older, and could kick my ass, although Emily probably would not let him do that. That was before ‘our loss’ as my mother put it, when she wanted people to feel sorry for us/go away. On this day, it’s after our loss. I walked up to the steps and nodded at Landon. My voice was maybe a notch deeper than it used to be. Being around him made me more nervous than it used to, but this was a purely physical reaction. I knew he wasn’t ‘a man’. On that day, and to this day, when I see a beautiful human being, I wonder if a person could take care of me; not because I need them to, but if they had to. If I did needed it, could they do it. I already knew that Landon could not. I knew that Landon was all show, or, like, the part of him that was not, the backstage part, was a person that needed to be taken care of, who didn’t believe that anyone would ever be able to give him what he was missing, and so he fucked people, because what good were they? He probably made people feel good, and would grow old alone, using and discarding people, and would only be tamed by the approach of death. Until then, he would simply be impossible to look away from. I said, “Hey,” trying to sound cool. He looked at me and smiled his ‘someone’s telling a joke’ smile and said, “Hey, kid. Happy birthday, right?” I nodded, tried to look at anything out here, anything that wasn’t him. I wanted him to think he was wrong about me. He said, “You going inside?” I said, “Oh, yeah,” like I forgot, but really I was just afraid to walk passed him, like I wasn’t allowed to be near him or something. I walked up the seven or eight steps, fiddling with my keys, though the door was probably unlocked, Emily always leaving it open for him. I pulled open the first door and he said, “Let her know I’m having a great time out here, okay?” I snorted a laugh and said, “Okay.” And he touched me, on the top of my head, rustled my hair, as if unafraid of what this might mean to me, as if he didn’t know, as if the meaning of anything was only ever in my head, and so he could do whatever he wanted, and it would only ever mean what I wanted it to, would never have a meaning outside of me, and I opened the second door, and he said, “Feel older yet?” as I slipped into the house.
I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. But I did. And it sucked.
“Stop being a faggot.”
This is Dean and what he means is stop saying sensible things. Easily confused.
Okay, what’s happening is your school made the awful mistake of okaying a rave-themed party in honor of the basketball team winning the division title. How obvious it is that none of your peers is ready to even attend a fake rave, is how ‘down South school dance’ most of the girls are dressed. Yes, this is a school dance, and yes, it is in the South, but you’re,like, here, so it doesn’t feel like the South—it just feels like being alive in 2011. Like, google ‘rave’, ya know? Anyway, Brent Fowler’s dad owns a lounge bar in town called Grool, and the board agreed to allow the party to be held there. Brent Fowler is the second-string point guard on the Crescent Moons, your school’s basketball team, and Grool is one of only four bars in town—there’s the hole-in-the-wall (where the racists hang out), the TGIFriday’s (where ‘normal’ people hang out), and there’s the bar where people go to get fucked (Grool).
When it was announced (via morning announcements) that ‘Rave Night with the Crescent Moons’ (you gave the middle finger to the PA when you heard this) would be held off campus, you turned to your left, where Dean sat. Dean is your best friend, only because your relationship is so mutually-abusive and self-contained that it is truly difficult for anyone else to A) stand either of you unless you’re together, to justify the other’s existence, or B) feel wanted by either of you, because neither of you realizes it, but you both have been doing whatever it takes to sabotage whatever possible new friendships you might accrue in the scant bit of high school you have left. Dean looked back at you with that grin he has that means he wants you to ask him one of the journalistic ‘W’ questions, and you smiled sideways, shook your head, rolled your eyes, and said, “What?”
During lunch you guys sit with Ericka and her friends, but they mostly just talk to each other and only include you two when they need a guy’s opinion about something, or they need a compliment or something. You look at Dean eating his taco, making as much of a mess someone can making while eating a cafeteria taco, and you go, “What was that look about in home room?” He shrugs, like you’re accusing him of something, and goes, “Who was I looking at?” You shake your head. “No. You’re not…you wanna go to the rave?” You were going to phrase the question as a negative (you’re not gonna _____ are you?), but you’re trying to cut that shit out. It’s a cowardly instinct, essentially asking someone to have the same prejudices as you without having the balls to just come out and be like, ‘Hate this with me?’ Dean nods. “Come smoke with me?” You stuff the last of your tuna melt in your mouth and say, “Okay,” while you chew it, which is gross.
He smokes a cigarette beneath the big tree across the street from the school. You go to one of those schools that are kinda bummed that ‘intelligent design’ isn’t on the curriculum, hence the non fuck giving. Dean offers you one, but you say no and make ‘no way, bro’ face, though you usually say yes. He goes, “You know how I’ve been telling you I wanna get out?” You’re sitting next to him on the grass. It’s kinda chilly out, but it’s not windy. The scant wind there is wafts him over to you, and you take deep breaths of him, alternately with the second hand smoke. He’s sitting with his knees up and his forearms resting on them. You want to just lean forward and press your lips against the forearm closest to you. You’re far enough away from the school that this might be okay, but affection is so realistic. It’s so hard to play it off as anything other than what it is, and when you give it to someone in a non-primal setting, like just hanging out, like this, it’s then required to mean something, and it can only mean one thing. You go, “Yeah.” He means get out of selling pills. He looks at you, and you look away from his sun-stroked forearm to his face, which is actually easier for you to look at, how goofy it settles, even when he’s being serious. He goes, “I owe Cali four-hundred dollars, but I just re-upped.” He pauses, as if he hasn’t already gone over every detail of this, but more like…like he knows once he says it, he’s beholden to it. He doesn’t actually have to follow through, but he does have to live with failing to do so, if it comes to that. People ask all the time why it’s okay to think things but ‘just not say them’ and, usually, the difference is, if your thoughts are poisonous, then they will poison only you, and if they are aspirational, then setbacks are less like failures and more like a cue on how to adapt your dream into its more attainable state, morph it into something you’re actually prepared for. Cali is Dean’s supplier, probably the only virgin drug supplier in the western hemisphere, by choice, because of Jesus, amen (he’s got this whole bullshit theory about how Jesus was basically the first drug dealer, and we will not get into this right now, trust us, you don’t want us to). Dean goes, “I think I can probably move it all that night, at the thing.” You’re sitting with your legs crossed on the grass, and you look down at it, start to gently pull little chunks of it out of the ground. You go, “The kids in this town…you think they would, like…spend money on something like that?” The University usually serves as the clientele. He shrugs, nods. “Yeah. Think about it, it’s gonna be dark, loud, half these guys walk around half-cocked all day anyway. High school’s like a zoo without the cages. I mean, like, civilization is a cage, and night’s like the rave are just the acceptable way of let the animals out. People will do whatever the night tells them to. Why do you think parents have a ferret up their asses about peer pressure?” You open your mouth to talk, but close it, sigh. He goes, “What?” You go, “Nothing.”
The music is almost like a physical entity, pressing against your body, mercifully rhythmic, such that eventually your body just gets used to it, like breathing. You nod your head as you and Dean move through the crowd—you don’t know if you’re trying to give the illusion of having a good time, or if your body was simply designed to do this. Like, what evolutionary purpose can the joy of rhythm serve, the need to match your body to the pulse of it? Maybe you’re just nodding your head so no one knows that this is the kind of conversation they’d be getting into if they actually stopped moving long enough to have one. Dean stops at a group of juniors all dancing more than they have to and leans up to Herb, the ostensible leader of this group. Sally Denally smiles at you and starts to rub her ass against you crotch, and you thrust against her reciprocally, not so much pretending she was someone you might desire, but trying to move like someone she might. Herb taps Sally’s arm and gestures for her to come over and talk to him and Dean. Herb’s already got his wallet out. You see Dean drop 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 pills into Herb’s waiting hand. There’s five people in this huddle, not counting you two. Dean shakes hands with everyone, kisses Sally on the check, grabs your hand, pulls you further into the crowd and the pounding abyss. You lean your lips against his ear and go, “I thought you said half a pill was enough.” He presses his face against your ear—it’s warm enough that the entire world turns into this face pressed against you. He says, “I give them what they ask for, not what they need. I’m not a doctor.” He pulls away so that you are facing each other. He’s got a lollipop, but he puts it toward your mouth, and you consider glowering at him, but you open your mouth, and he puts the lollipop in. He puts his hands on either side of your face and a girl bumps into him, vomits on the floor by his feet. He hops away, toward you, puts his arm around your shoulder so that you’re close to him, and you watch this girl’s equally wasted friends try to navigate their rolling comrade through the crowd and toward the ladies’ room. They’re going the wrong way, so they must be leaving. Dean kisses you on the cheek, now that he has you here. “I love you,” he says. “You know that, right?” What would people say to each other if they didn’t have televisions? You shrug, nod. “Yeah.” A group of dancers move to the puke spot, maybe assume they are dancing in a spilled drink. “No,” he says, “look at me.” You do. He takes the lollipop out of your mouth and tosses it on the dance floor, everywhere the dance floor. How many pills Dean’s had for his swan song, you don’t know. He pulls your body close to his. “Do you feel that?” You feel that. “Yeah.” “Do you want it?” You want it. “…yeah.” “Come on.” He takes your hand and continues leading you through the crowd as the DJ slams into complete dig-a-grave-with-your-body dubstep territory, bodies winding around each other like colors in a candy cane factory, but, like, from hell.
Dean busts through the bathroom door just as Vance Mitchell is lifting his head off the rim of the sink, sniffing harder than fuck, wiping at his nose. He laughs really hard when he sees you two come in. Cameron Moore is with him, both basketball players, both rolling their faces off, thanks to your friend, and his roundabout retirement party. “Yo,” Cameron says, “duuuuude!” and shakes Dean’s hand/hugs him, goes, “yo, that shit has me mad twisted right now.” “I’m glad, I’m glad.” “You got anymore?” Dean shrugs. “I mean, I got a couple things left, but…see me later, see how you feel.” “True, true.” Vance, still grinning, goes, “Either you guys gotta stogey I can bum? I’m mad unprepared for this. I got a dollar if you want it.” You shrug. “I don’t smoke.” “Sorry, bros,” Dean says, though he’s got a whole pack in his back pocket. “S’all good,” Vance says, and says, to Cameron, “I think I’m gonna slip it Carey’s ass tonight, dude,” as they exit the bathroom. Cameron goes, “What, like, by accident?” Then the door closes, and they’re gone. Dean goes, “Lock it.” You do. The music seeps through the cracks in the walls and coils beneath the door, like a vampire. He pushes you against begins the process of kissing you everywhere but your face, and you begin the process of telling yourself that feeling good within the small space that you call ‘yourself’ is more important than any sense of ‘good’ that might exist outside of it. This is not something you will do forever, but it will get you through the years of your life during which your decisions are dominated by feelings; by the feeling that there is something you deserve, and that it is a good thing. But eventually that will give way to an understanding, and you will get that there is only bad, unless other people care, and then it’s good, even if the only thing that changes is that there is someone paying attention to it now.
You play with your french fries.
You forgot that yesterday, you told yourself that you’d be giving up fried-food for Lent, but that you should start immediately, instead of waiting for Lent to start, because you don’t like doing what you’re told, even if you’re the one giving the orders, and doing it on the day would feel too much like something you had to do, and your parents are Secular Humanists, which means you don’t believe in Lent anyway. You just figure ‘giving up stuff’ is one of those ideas, in bibles, that’s not technically a bad idea, and you don’t wanna be a douche, like, celebrating you’re own personal Lent in October or something, so you just do it when your friends, and everybody else on the planet is doing it. But that’s just how it feels. Fact of the matter is, Jesus or not, you’re getting a bit of a gut, even if only psychologically, and fried food is just about the easiest thing to cut out of any diet, because nobody thinks they’ve actually earned it, and so you look at Shannon, who sits opposite you, then you look at her salad. You look back at her. “You wanna trade?” Her mouth stops, mid-sentence apparently, though you forgot to check if she was talking before you started doing it. You laugh and look at Carlos, next to her, and he laughs. And you go, “I’m sorry. I know I probably asked you the question you were answering just now—” “You did.” “—but, like, I gave up these, for Lent?” You mean the fries. She blinks at you. Shannon is really cute to gay men, but not typically to straight ones. Not that anybody around here is any kinda man, straight or not. She goes, “Gave them up for what? You’re like a wicca or something—you don’t have Lent.” “Fuck you, I’m a humanist, and I’m not even, my parents are. Trade your salad, I mean. For my disco fries.” She slowly stabs at her salad, just once, getting a bunch of lettuce and a sliver of chicken on her fork. She eyes you in a manner others might interpret as ‘seductive’, but that just means she has to burp or something. She says, “Witch,” like a slur, and brings the forkful of salad to her mouth, chews with her eyes closed like it’s really good, exhales through her nose. You roll your eyes, and Carlos, Carlos shakes his head, and, smiling, he says, “Why don’t you just go order a salad. It’s not like they have to cook it.” You sigh and look at Mrs. Faraday over there, wiping down the counter. You look at Carlos, put on a show-business smile, go, “You wanna trade?” He snorts. “I don’t eat that shit, man. Why would you eat something with the word disco in it?” You grimace at his gyro and shrug, go, “I dunno. Sorry it’s not a…fucking…gyro.”
You don’t have any gyro jokes, and he takes a very smooshy, very succulent-looking bite out of it.
You deflate, go, “Fine.” Shannon goes, “Give the fries to the homeless dude outside. Not making a joke.” You shrug again, go, “Maybe,” start sliding out the booth. Carlos goes, “Get me another coke?” He holds out his empty cup and he gives you an ‘I’m not using you, but you are getting up, and I love you’ face, and you take the cup, and you trot toward the counter.
Mrs. Farady is way on the other side, so you walk around, ‘cause she’s near the bathrooms, and you kinda gotta piss, and it’s while realizing this that you bump chest-to-chest into Victor Festus. It wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t with his ‘friends’, but he is. You try not to make an ‘aw, fuck’ face. “My bad,” you say, fake laughing. “I wasn’t even looking. That’s like, definitely my bad. Gonna ask for extra carrots in my salad, I think.”
Bonkers, the biggest one, laughs, but Victor does’t, and that’s kinda who you’re talking to. They’re in your way, and they aren’t moving, or at least acting that way. “Isn’t it passed your bed time?” Victor says this. These little exchanges made you cry the first couple of times they happened, and you had that accusatory rage, where you think you know people better than they know themselves, and you were all like, ‘He’s just a coward that wants to be a part of my life, but he doesn’t know why, and he hates me for it.’ But then you thought about how you and Victor were friends when you were neighbors. When he moved, he got a couple flunkies, became one of those people who refuses to look beyond the veil. Everything was what it looked like, and what it did for them. Less believing and more memorizing. Whatever made them not feel sad. You don’t know if he’s doing it because that’s how you stay sane, or if that’s really the kind of guy he is, or if there’s a difference… You missed a big chunk of him maturing into the person who stands in front of you at this very moment. Point is, after you stopped being angry, and scared that mean people were always right, and that you’d never be more than the worst thing they could say about you, you realized that maybe Victor had thought of all this, and this was just his way of catching up with you, just seeing what’s up, without having to lose his support-system, who, at the end of the day, were these guys. You noticed his cronies said all the cunt-y shit, and he basically asked you regular questions, albeit in a way that could be interpreted as mean.
Isn’t it passed your bed time? You blink. “Oh, um. Kinda. My parents got a new therapist, and he’s all about encouraging them to let me, like, I dunno. Leave the house.” He nods. “Bout time.” The others laugh. Except Todd, who seems really stoned. Todd is actually in your math class, and better at it than you. You go, “Yeah! Me and…um, me and my friend Shannon, and Carlos, Rivera? I dunno, we saw that movie The Sessions? It’s with Helen Hunt. Shannon’s dad was the set dresser on it, so. I dunno…it’s ‘indie’.” Remmy snorts. “You mean it’s gay?” Bonkers laughs again, and Victor even snorts a little, looks at you like you two are laughing for the same reason, even though you’re only now realizing you have a smile on your face, which you wipe away, ‘cause you don’t know. He’s allowed to feel cooler than you, if that’s what he wants. You don’t know why people want things, so you don’t know if it’s not fair for him to want this. Victor goes, “Who’s Carlos?” You turn to look at the table, like there’s some other reason Carlos stands out, other than the fact that you just mentioned him. You turn back around. Shrug sorta. Go, “He’s…friends with me, and Shannon. Like, he’s…we’re friends. Ya know, like—” Remmy makes a close-mouthed guffaw sound and goes, “You talk a lot, bro.” Victor nods at you. “You ramble.” Todd goes, “Your voice.” He makes a hand gesture, like a chef discussing a certain aroma. He goes, “It’s…high-pitched, and sort of like…pierces my ears. Anyone ever say that to you?” You look down at the empty cup in your hands and you say, “My therapist, sometimes.” Bonkers laughs shrilly. “This kid is weird, dude,” he says, and Todd says, “I’m gonna eat my fucking T-shirt, and his, if I don’t get a fucking bacon cheeseburger, in like…fifteen minutes,” and Remmy goes, “I’ma sit down,” and they all get bored, and walk away, except Victor, who stays. He goes, “More iced tea?” He nods at your cup. “No. I mean, yes, but, soda is going in this. For, um…one of my friends.” He smirks. “You say it like I’m not gonna believe you.” You shrug. “I dunno. I don’t usually feel that believable. I don’t buy it half the time.” You do the thing where you look down, then look back up again, but he’s already thinking about what you’re saying, or maybe thinking about why he came here, either way, his brow is furrowed now, but he hasn’t looked away, he’s just nodding now. “True. Well…just watch your step next time, alright?” And he walks away. You look up and Mrs. Faraday is eyeing you and them, from behind the counter, and you smile at her, not your show-biz smile, but your ‘down home’ smile, the one that older people like. It takes you a moment to realize you’re just a smiling asshole, standing in the middle of a restaurant, alone, but you finally do, and you groan to yourself, and then you order your salad.
Reese turns to you, goes, “You’re not smoking anymore.”
The music doesn’t even sound like music right now, it sounds like a threat. Some kind of bass-heavy Southern rap music made to screw-up your face to, made for strippers to dance to. You blink at Reese, feeling ornery all of a sudden: “You get to tell me what to do now?”
He snorts. You can’t hear something like that over the music, but you see his body do the snort movement, and so you snort back. He goes, “First of all, all I do is tell your ass what to do. Second, if you could see yourself right now, you’d go, like…I dunno, find Jesus or something.”
You shrug. “You’re not sober.”
He nods like ‘no, shit.’ He goes, “Yah. I’m fucked up. I don’t look fucked up, though. I’m DJing. All the head-bobbing makes me look like I’m concentrating, and if I look like I’m concentrating, then I gotta be sober, right? I mean, not really, but that’s how it looks to other people, and, since I’m in public, that’s how I’m thinking about it. I mean, I don’t care, I’m just saying. Tomorrow you’ll wish you didn’t look fucked up right now.”
You blink at him.
He grabs the roach, takes two puffs, hands it back, exhales a slow plume upward; you picture the smoke filling up the whole place, like a fog machine. The house is filled with people as fucked up as you are. It’s someone’s birthday. The music has been going three and a half hours, and the night is at its ‘peak.’ No one will be sober again for quite some time, and they are relishing it—this is good news. It’s the kind of party where, if you’re not comfortable dancing, saying yes, and just generally not giving a fuck, you probably left a long time ago. Reese shakes his head at you, like he does to his baby sister, when she doesn’t understand words as much as he thinks she should already. “Go get us two bottles of water. It’ll sober you up. We just gotta last two hours, then we can go. Hold up.”
He leans over to cue up the next song, then he mixes smoothly from one to the other, maybe cutting over a bit too quickly at the last moment, but it probably sounds like fucking Thomas Bangaltar himself is spinning, how convinced everyone is that this is an amazing night. You think for a second that he accidentally put the same song on, then you think about how impossible this is and look at him—he is looking back at you. He goes, “Are you listening?”
You think about it… “No.”
He coughs, goes, “I said, they moved anything edible out of the kitchen and put in the pantry in the basement.” You blink then look over to the party, sprawled out before you. The basement is on the opposite end of the party. The basement may as well be on Alderaan, how far away this feels. You laugh, how unfunny it is. Reese laughs and goes, “Whatever. You remember where it is? You want me to go with you? I can put on like a mixtape or whatever…”
People are always giving you their ‘you’re going to let me down anyway, aren’t you’ option. Nobody ever thinks you can handle what is actually asked of you, only because it never seems like you actually want to do it. You shake your head, “Nah, I remember. It’s, like, opposite the front door.” He nods, “Yeah. There’s a fridge in there—in the pantry or whatever—so, um…if there’s cold water in there, grab that. I’ll take whatever, though. There might be people down there.” He says this last part in bold, but you’re not sure if he means you should be afraid of this, or if this will make your job easier. You nod and say, “Okay,” make a face like someone who doesn’t need this explained twice, hesitate like someone who does, but Reese isn’t paying attention anymore, has just gone back to the music, probably needing it as much as you need to take this walk.
You resign to this fate. You are briefly amazed that you are even walking—that your body just does this, upright even! How many people can say that? Well, most of them. Animals. How many animals can say that?
A hand lands on your shoulder, just as you’ve pushed passed the first couple, ramming their pelvises together in a manner that is somehow one of the most loving gestures you have ever seen, and you seize, this hand on you, and you think ‘they’ve found me out…this is it!’ You don’t know what you did, but you know what you’ve done, and you’re surprised people just aren’t chewing you out all day—you’re pretty sure you deserve it.
But it’s just Reese, being harmless. “I’m going with you.” He shrugs. You nod, feeling sober already.
Having passed through the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room, you reach the wooden door off to the side of the foyer, and this is the basement door. Reese opens it. He goes, “After you,” and you nod, and you trot down the stairs, half-expecting him to just close the door behind you, locking you down here, but he comes along, though he does close the door.
The basement glows warmly, like scenes in martial arts movies, when the protagonist walks into his dojo and everything is supposed to feel all…simmered down, like you can go to the bathroom now, if you want. Or her dojo. It is barely lit, and there’s a big poker table set up right in the middle, and there are people in various stages of undress, laughing really loud, and speaking in grunts and purrs, at least that’s the impression you’re getting. There’s about 8 people playing, six of which are girls, and one of these girls, in her bra and in her underpants, looks over at the two of you, standing at the bottom of the stairs, and she says, “Reese! Hey babe, come play with us!” Reese grins beneath eye-lids that are barely open, waves to the group, goes, “Sup, guys. Sup, Molly.” Reese has hooked up with Molly on a consistent basis since last year, hangs out with Molly on a consistent basis, you are sure, yet he never talks about her. You get told Reese talks about you a lot. You don’t know which thing it is better to be. You know which one you want to be, but it’s important to only acknowledge things about yourself you’d be willing to say out loud. You have to trick people about what your hopes are, or else just pretend not to have any. No one’s ever suggested this to you, it’s just an idea you came up with, to keep yourself in check. Even when there’s just orange juice in your system, there’s a way about your look—not your appearance, but your look; meaning, like, how you look at things. You have a tendency to frighten people. How cowardly that makes them, you don’t know. “We’ll just be a second,” Reese says, unable to hold back a smile and leans you in the direction of the underground pantry, off to your left. There’s another door, and, inside it, a string, that when you pull it, light arrives. There is dry food and paper towels and Dixie cups, but you do not see water. There is a fridge—Reese opens it and hands you a bottle of cold water. You look at it like you thought he was making it up, like there was never really a water bottle. He’s already chugging his, so you open yours and do the same, like this was your idea too. Like no one could ever leave behind someone willing to chug water with them, willing to pretend that they want to. Like as long as you’re saying ‘yes,’ nothing bad can ever happen to you.
Reese pulls his bottle away and wipes his mouth with his sleeve, panting, grinning at the joke of being thirsty. You just look at his face and keep chugging.
“So can you tell me what the hell happened? Like, we’re in the middle of the lake now. No one’s listening. You’re lucky I’m listening.”
You row without saying anything to Sara because you are out of shape and only people who do cardio can talk while doing physically exhaustive things, and you do not do cardio, unless crying jags count (they probably don’t, though you suppose you will google this, if again given the chance), and she grows impatient, but you think she is using this disgruntlement to mask an emotion she isn’t sure she wants acknowledge, one that you can’t imagine you are hiding with much success, what with your heavy breathing, before the rowing even began, and your calling her, frantic, asking if she was up, asking if you could come by, Sara groggily asking if you were okay, you telling her that you were coming to get her, without explanation—saying that you didn’t want to talk on the phone, that you’d be there in five minutes, less than that, her asking what was going on, you telling her that you were driving, and that you didn’t want to get pulled over, then hanging up.
You were in her living room, and she was dressed in a blue, too-big t-shirt, with a Corona logo printed across her chest—her arms were crossed, as if she were cold, though her apartment was warm, warmer than it was outside, anyway. You’ve got your own place, too, but hers makes her seem more adult, more like she knows what she’s doing—none of her furniture used to belong to her Nana; her hardwood floor isn’t scuffed; there are no movie posters, but prints, of arty things her guests will not understand, and will not ask her to explain, but will wallow in their own inability to think abstractly. It smells like it was just cleaned, and not just smoked in. “Is Derek here?”
She shrugged, nodded. “He’s sleeping. It’s 4 in the morning. He has work tomorrow. Today, whatever.”
“No. Jesus. What’s wrong with you? Not cosmically; just, right now…”
You were looking over her shoulder, then she was looking there, too, and Derek was standing in the doorway to their bedroom, in long johns and nothing else, with disheveled hair, bleary-eyed. “What’s going on?”
Fucking people and this question! None of your business! You look around, not knowing what for, and your eyes finally settle on an empty bottle of sauvignon blanc sticking out of the small recycling bin in the kitchen. They went to bed buzzed, at least. You wondered how knowing this might help you, you wondered in what way you needed help. You just needed Sara to leave with you; you needed Derek to go back to bed. Sara went, “Ummm,” and you said, “I just…I had a long night. And I need a friend right now. You understand.” Bullshit, but also true. You need Sara, not a friend. You’ve known Derek longer than she has, well enough that you know not to look at him full on, especially when he isn’t dressed. He crossed his arms, across his chest, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, leaned against the door frame. “Why? What happened?” He used to be able to ask you this and get you to read a chapter from your life story, proverbially—his approval used to get you out of bed in the morning—but, this time, you just looked at Sara, in her eyes, and you said, “It’s a long story.” She nodded. There was only one long story neither of you could share with anyone, anyone who wasn’t there. You know she wanted to give you hell for what you were doing, the stunt of it, at least how much it looked that way. “Sara, can I talk to you? In the bedroom?” He knew you had no one you could say this to. Years passing, and, still, only you. And she went to him, him eyeing you as she padded across the living room, toward their bedroom, but you did not look back. Fuck Derek. He didn’t deserve your attention. Sara stepped out of the bedroom a few minutes later, alone, dressed, pulled the bedroom door closed. “Lead the way.”
“I don’t wanna stop rowing,” you say, now, on the lake. She goes, “Dude, if you can say that, you can throw out key words. I’ll get the hint, and that hint will tide us over till we get to the island. Like, what’s in the box, for example?”
You grunt. “Weapons, kinda.”
“Weapons for what?”
You pant, too complicated. “…”
“And where’s Brendan?”
You inhale, grunt. “Looking for her.”
Andrea. “She got out?”
You row. She got out. You, Brendan, Andrea, and Sara went to Andrea’s dad’s cabin over Thanksgiving break, because you don’t really have a family, Brendan hates his, Andrea’s parents were spending the holiday in Cabo, and Sara didn’t want to schlepp all the way to New York, not when she’d have to do it for Christmas, that, and her subtle hints to Derek that maybe she could spend the holiday with his family were met with his somehow huge half-grin, an easygoing shake of his head, and some variation of “Imagine?” So you were cabin bound. The place was so not the shit hole you were expecting. It was in the middle of the woods, set far from the only main road, but there was nothing particularly sinister about any of it. Not at first.
You went to see Brendan tonight, before visiting Sara. He called you, but you had already seen it on the news. Brendan’s mom’s house isn’t that far from your apartment—it’s small; the front door was open when you got there. He sat in the living room, in the arm chair that sits opposite the couch, both of which face the plasma television, mounted on the wall. He already had a scotch in his hand—he didn’t look drunk; it was his first drink. He looked like his heart was a balloon—like it got too big, and then it burst. The TV wasn’t on. He was sitting in silence. You walked to the middle of the room, into his field of vision, and he nodded at you. You’re not much a hand-shaker. “What’s up? What’s wrong?” You sat down, on the couch. He looked you—his chair swiveled, and he did that, for the facing of you. “Andrea got out.” “Jesus? When?” “I dunno. While I was gone.” “After this morning?” This morning you and Brendan took a trip to the university where his sister works, teaching courses on, among other things, ancient religion, and mythology. You told her the two of you were working on a comic book, that you wanted her opinion on the most realistic way to explain your plot—she asked you what the plot was and you told her about Andrea, though you renamed her ‘Emily’ for the sake of the lie of it all. She told you how you might go about killing something like what ‘Emily’ finds herself turning into, something that suddenly can’t go out in the sun, something that suddenly can’t keep down regular food, or wear the medallion her grandmother gave her, as a christening gift, because it’s got a cross on it. Brendan shrugged—not in his sister’s office, this morning, but tonight, when you went to him, and his scotch buzz, in his quiet house, with all the lights on. “I went to work after I dropped you off, so I was gone all day. But I think I just missed her.” The only way into the attic is to go into Brendan’s bedroom, into his closet, and to climb into the passageway in the ceiling there. “Was your mom home?” Brendan looked at you; his face was steeled—his jaw was clenched—but his skin was flushed, and his eyes looked like they were pouring Visine on themselves, and he’d started breathing through his mouth, as he nodded, and whispered, “Yes.” And you suddenly wanted him to offer you a drink, or to sit next to you, or to get up and lock the door, because you didn’t do it when you came in, and you were realizing that you were probably supposed to do that. “Where is she now?” He got up out of the solo chair, walked over to you, sat down beside you, in the middle seat, so that there was no cushion between you. He took a big gulp of his drink, exhaled. “She’s in the closet.” You looked at him, and he held out his drink, his hand was shaking; near imperceptibly, but it was happening. You took the drink. “Finish it.” You shot it back, though it was about two and half shots worth of scotch. He brought you to the closet. The downstairs, storage closet. His mother was bunched up in the corner, in what looked like sleeping clothes; she was likely preparing for bed, when it happened. He neck was obviously broken, and her body was obviously drained, but it looked like more than just blood had been sucked from her. The skin seemed to lie directly across her bones, as if her muscles had been liquefied, sucked out through the two puncture wounds in her neck. You closed the door, as Brendan had begun breathing heavier, and scrunching up his face, and you had never seen a dead body that wasn’t on the internet, where you could pretend it was from some movie or something. Brendan was crying, and you felt on-the-spot, like he would hate you for knowing what this looked like, all of it, and so you pulled his body to yours, and wrapped your arms around him, not in the false, hey-gurl way, but in the way you never hug anyone, because holding them will then become the only thing you think about—you squeeze him like you’ve never felt human skin, or muscle, never felt what the bone structure of a person feels like, through the rest of them, through their clothes. You inhaled the sweat on him, the scotch, the need-to-be-changed-ness of the shirt he’d been wearing all day, none of it making you want to stop, until his breathing steadied, and you pulled away. “We have to find her.” You said this. “I know.” “Do you think that shit your sister said is true? About the coffin?” He nodded, walked over to the kitchen, and you followed him. “I think it might be.” He said this you. “I think she…knew. That we talked to someone. So we have to go back. We have to get a piece of it, and we have to come back, and we have to…” Brendan grabbed the bottle of Johnny Walker that was sitting on the kitchen island and poured it into a cup, already there, matching the one he was drinking in the living room. “I meant to pour you a drink before, but I forgot.” “It’s cool.” “I have to bury my mother.” You said nothing, he said, “Call Sara. I haven’t. I don’t think I have her number anymore.” “Alright.” He took a healthy gulp of courage, liquid. “Don’t go back there alone, dude.” “I won’t.” “Please.” “I won’t. For real, I won’t. But…” “What?” “Why not call the cops? About your mom, I mean?” “‘Cause I have to find her, and I can’t leave here to hunt down Andrea’s dead ass and bury my…it’ll be obvious that that’s how it worked. I don’t know. I don’t fucking know. I just feel like I should. I’ll call after. Or never. Andrea’s DNA is all over this place. I just…” “It’s cool. You answered my question.”
The boat reaches the island, again. “Another vacation,” Sara says, “and so soon. I’m a lucky girl.” You’re already climbing out the boat. “Grab the box,” you say, turning to face the beach, the trees, the grass, trying to remember the way back to the hut, with the impossibly fancy interior, the luxurious tomb, in which you found the tiny box you were all foolish enough, drunk and high enough, to open. You wonder where the fog goes, as this island is typically not visible. The last night, at the cabin, Thanksgiving night, when you were all full of turkey and substance abuse, the four of you were dicking around in the backyard, telling Andrea how fortunate she was, to come from people who had things, a fortune left to them from her parent’s grandparents. There was a small beach back there, overlooking a lake completely overtaken by fog, nothing visible beyond the few feet you all could see in the dark, waning full moon or not. Sara and Andrea wandered off, closer to the edge of the water, to the rocks that separated that grass of this side to the sand of that side, and Brendan remained near you, yawning. “They should make turkey pills,” he said, “maybe I’d get to bed on time.” “Wanking is nature’s turkey pill, bro.” He laughed. “Wanking just makes me stay up longer.” “That sucks.” “If it sucked, it would put me to sleep.” You smiled at him, getting his terrible joke, and he shoved you, lightly, though your drunk self hardly knew the difference, stumbled off the grass, onto the rocks, catching your balance on a rusted looking stone, which released steam, from the section of ground beneath it, started to rattle. The girls were giggling, yards away, trying to walk along the stones without falling, and Brendan smiled at you. “What the fuck?” You shrugged, remained on the rock, afraid that getting off would make the shaking stop, and you turned toward the girls. “Andy! Yo! What is this?” They turned to you. “What is what?!” And the fog on the lack began to drift away, and a boat was revealed, rocking gently in the water, attached to a rope, itself attached to a post, submerged in the water. Eventually, the island was revealed, and you rowed to it, your human desire for adventure kicking in; your desire for finding something to make your life feel like more than it was: a way to occupy yourself until you weren’t here anymore. You found the hut, found it decorated with a theme of red—red wall-to-wall carpet, red wallpaper, with gold accents, red, leather chairs, two doors, both painted red, recently, by the looks of it—there were gold candelabra, with red candles, half-melted, but not lit. You all lit them, so you could see. One door led to a stone room, with a small, wooden box in its center, which you opened. This is where you found the bat, which flapped toward the closest person, Andrea, who it bit, before you could knock it to the floor, and stop on its head, causing the rest of its body to burst into flames. It was here that your problems started. Not your regular problems—your self-doubt, and inability to say the right thing, at the right time, to the right person. Your getting her to hold still long enough to row back to the cabin problems; your Andrea’s neck wound has already healed problems; your prying her away from sucking the life out of a hapless doe problems; your keeping her chained up in the attic until you could figure out what to do with her problems. That box is what you’ve come back here for. You needed a piece of it, a sharp piece, and you needed to drive that piece through her heart, before anybody else got hurt. There were people on the news who had already met her, and these people were forcing newscasters to use their tragic-loss voices, their dead-loved-ones voices.
You and Sara open the toolbox of weapons. There’s the stuff you’ll need to fashion an edged weapon out of the box in the hut; there are two knives, to protect yourselves from whatever might arise from the dark, to stop you from spreading the plague that was once contained here, until you set it free. And there are two silver crosses, like knives, in their own way. You close the box, after you each take out a cross, and you look at yours, wondering if you have to believe in what it means in order for it to work, if you only have to believe in yourself. You’re kinda screwed either way. You know this, but you still lock the toolbox, and stand, and point to a mess of bushes, under a cluster of rotting trees, say, “It’s over there,” and head off, happy that the Johnny Walker was donated to this journey, sits among the other weapons, to be used the moment you actually make sight of this godforsaken hut, and need access to the part of you willing to run around screaming without being self-conscious about it.
There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, you tell people, but only so they stop wondering how you get through the day, often unprompted, because nobody ever actually asks you if you know the difference. “They walk pretty slow, huh?” Gutter asks you this. You look down—he’s, like, whittling a stake or something. You look off in the distance, Alex and the girls are just now emerging from the woods on the other side of the clearing. Alex is a boy. “How uncomfortable are those shoes, by the way?” You grin down at him. You brought sneakers with you, but they got wet, are currently drying back at camp; your only other shoes are the ones you are wearing, dress shoes, meant for the regional trivia championships you guys will be taking part in tomorrow night. Camping was not your idea. “They’re not that bad. Dr. Scholls is breaking me off right now.” He snorts. You think about sitting down, too, but the others will be here soon, and…you just think better of it. “My grandpa used to whittle shit,” he says, Gutter. “He, like, made stuff, though. Like, he made me a bigass ewok once, for my birthday. I was obsessed with Star Wars, in my less stunningly-handsome days.” “Those ended?” He laughs again. You’re doing good, today. “I still have it. I’ll show you one day.” “The ewok?” He looks up at you, holding out his six-inch whittled stake. “Yes, the ewok? Would else would I want to show you?” You roll your eyes and look over to Alex, and Lucee, and Sharice, Alex calling out, “Oi oi! Thanks for waiting up, guys. We barely got raped by bears.” “I can tell,” you call back, Lucee stepping on the bridge that separates that set of woods to the trees into which you will soon be venturing. Gutter puts up a hand, and you take it, haul him up off his ass and back to his feet. “Thank you, guy.” “No problem.” Gutter starts walking toward where the rest of you need to go, but you stay where you are, having already left the others behind so that he wouldn’t have to walk alone, someone you didn’t even want on the team at first. You’re a dick that way, when it comes to even wanting to get to know people who don’t seem like you from far away. In this case, people who are loud, and easily amused, and who’ve never read an entire book (not co-written by a famous athlete or musician); people for whom working hard is easy, but thinking hard is considered a chore. The others reach you. You fall into step with them. “How was your head start?” Lucee says, and you ignore her, which is how you deal with Lucee when you’re sober, ‘you’ being ‘people who have to deal with her’, which is mostly you guys lately. The sound of her voice is enough to bring someone down, and, for some reason, she likes it that way. Alex puts his arm around your shoulder, “Yeah, buddy,” knowing what you’re thinking, walks alongside you as you catch up with Gutter, who has stopped walking, in the opposite clearing, playing with his cell phone.
Sharice has her earbuds in, but you’re pretty sure she isn’t listening to anything; she just constantly needs headphones in or around her head, despite her relative people-person status. You used to do the headphone thing, but you did as a means to look unavailable for conversation, as if to say, ‘I’m listening to all I can handle right now,’ until you learned that constantly either staring at the floor or scowling works just as well, if not better. She’s got Bugger, her chihuahua in a baby-bjorn-for-dogs thing on her back—he’s sleeping. The dog is why this is even happening, this march. Not the camping; the camping was Sharice’s idea, and Alex, being unable to say no to things, lest someone be mad at him for over two seconds, agreed, convincing you all that camping out the weekend would be a good bonding experience, that it would be a good chance to practice/get wasted without distraction, Alex the only one who truly seemed to co-sign this excuse, the rest of you knowing Sharice grew up in this town, would camp here with her father all the time, the father she lost last year. So, whatever, you’re all here now; it’s not even that bad. At least it wasn’t. Before last night. Whatever. You guys reach Gutter, who smirks at you, is explaining to Lucee how much farther you all have to go, so she can time her complaints about walking at proper intervals. “You guys ready?” he says. “It’s about a mile or so through there. Something like that.” He points to the new set of woods. “Right?” He’s talking to you, you were with him last night; you go, “Something like that.” You were drunk; you can’t remember. Alex walks behind Sharice and pets the dog, who stirs in his sleep, yawns, re-closes his eyes. Alex looks at the group, excited about what Gutter is leading you all to. “Let’s move, then, huh?” Lucee sighs—you wait for her to put some form of pleasure on blast, but she just goes, “Yeah, let’s get this over with,” which sort of counts as enthusiasm, and Gutter smiles really big, claps, goes, “Exactly.” Sharice rolls her eyes, holds Lucee’s hand, and you all walk again.
“Are you depressed? I’m not…trying to be a dick. I know I’m supposed to be a dick, according to people, but I’m not…I’m not doing that right now.” Gutter said this to you last night. Somewhere between Alex and Sharice going into the massive tent to ‘turn in early’, and Lucee getting tired of waiting for their courtesy twenty minutes of possible-fucking to pass, you and Gut were left alone with the night, sitting on adjacent lawn chairs, both of you, unbeknownst to each other, trying to come up with any reason not to go to sleep, like this day would have to be pried from your exhausted bodies, like going to bed was akin to admitting failure—both of you insomniacs not in a way where sleep is difficult to attain, but like you’re afraid of what it will do when it gets here. With the morning being the most difficult part of the day, it sucks knowing passing out means ultimately ending up in that space again. All this means is instead of ignoring each other, like you do as much as you can, you and Gutter had to entertain each other. “Do I seem depressed?” He laughed, looked at you. You’re not good at look at people dead on, and it’s easier to not feel weird about this when you’re drunk, but you like to steal looks at people who are being nice to you, so that you remember them, just in case they go away, and so you glanced at him, glanced at the dog, who was tied to a nearby tree, his leash. He said, “You say a lotta true shit I agree with, but, like, it’s the kinda stuff most people might call depressing. I was just wondering. I mean, we’re supposed to get joy out of the little things, and so not notice that the big picture is fucked up, or, like, maybe empty sometimes. That fact that you notice it…I dunno, I was just wondering. If that label’s ever officially been pinned to you…” You guys’d been drinking wine from a box all night, but your cup was empty at this point, a symptom of you drinking faster than your buddy here, who filled hi cup up at the same time as you. You were waiting for him, like a gentleman. You shrugged. “No. But I know what you mean. Sometimes I wonder if there’s really such thing as mental illness, or just people too far into an area we don’t feel we should have to put with, that we feel we have to fix them, so that we can put up with them.” “Or so they can make a theoretically happy life for themselves, withing the structure of the way a proper life is set up, like, throughout history. Like, the point in history we find ourselves, or whatever. I know what you mean. I get adderall, like, prescribed to me, to feel normal, but, like…normal being shut up and do your homework, which is the right move, but…it’s like I’m not worth anything without. Not that anything is actually ‘worth’ anything, but…like, what am I without it? If I’m not good at being what people want from a person?” You looked up at the sky; the stars were visible—this felt like a surprise, but you don’t know if it’s just because the skies here are clearer, or if you just don’t really look up all that much back home. You felt something touch your cup, and you blinked back down to earth, saw Gut pouring half of his drink into it, smirking, waiting for you to tell him to stop, and you said, “Stop,” and he did, settled into his lawn chair, stretching his legs, his sneakers pushing dead leaves out of their way, leaving two grooves in the dirt. You did the same thing. You’re only a follower with the little things. The only other things in the clearing with you are the tent, the dying fire you used to cook sausages, hot dogs, and burgers, all without buns; those things, plus the dog… Gutter burped. “Can I ask you a semi-serious personal question? It’s sort-of an insecure question—I hate those, so you might, too, is why I’m asking like this, before actually asking…and you can be honest…you seem honest. Like most liars, right?” He smiled at you, joking, and you said, “Where’s the dog?” “What?” You pointed to the leash, still tied to the tree, neither serving a purpose anymore, as the dog was gone, the tent zipped shut, so no way he trotted in there without you noticing. Gutter’s face dropped, his head tilted back against his chair. “She’s gonna kill us.” “We didn’t do anything.” “It doesn’t matter. My sister has a cat, and if some shit goes down when she’s not there, but I am, despite her knowing I’d film her cat dying before helping it not do so, it’s my fault. This is our fault.” But the clearing has trees all around. Gutter points to the vaguely most dirt around where the dog had been tied up—there are little paw prints leading into the woods in that direction. You stood up, poured your cup out on the grass. “I’ll get the flashlight.” “You do that.”
The ground is harder today than it was yesterday, but there seem to be more bugs on this side of the woods, more than you noticed last night, more than you thought the weather would allow, though you don’t know too much about bugs, and what the weather does to them. You tell yourself to google this someday. You hear a weak cough from somewhere behind you. Bugger; the dog; he’s been sleeping and coughing in intervals since you all got up this morning/afternoon. The others look bored, Lucee somehow not tripping over logs and things, texting as she walks, miraculously getting service out here. Alex pretends you aren’t looking at them. Sharice is playing music now, finally. You like her silent treatment better when she’s got an excuse that isn’t ‘You Killed My Dog’. She’s got you all trudging this way to find out what the dog was spending time with before you found him. All you could recall through the haze of how tired you were last night, and how much you’d imbibed, and how much you didn’t care what else your flashlight spied, once it spied the dog, is that there were less trees, that there was a lot of grass, but that it was cut weird. “What do you mean weird??” was Sharice’s response, Alex stepping closer to her, getting her to calm down, establishing who he wanted to believe in him. “We’ll go back, then,” you said, Gutter pulling you aside, as everyone packed for a hike you couldn’t make sound like not a big deal, going, “You don’t wanna go back, why’d you say you did? What’s wrong with saying what you think? It doesn’t hurt, I promise.” You just shrugged. That was obviously earlier. Now you march. You look at Gutter, who is walking beside you, making a face like he knows where he’s going. He spies you spying and shakes his head, half-smiles, quietly says, “We’re not lost.” “I know.” “You wish we were?” “I wish we never went camping.” You juts out his lower lip, nodding at you. “That was honest of you. How long until you feel bad for even saying it?” You snort. “I already do.”
It starts to smell the closer you get, the slight wind wafting the funk like servants carrying a regal overlord, Gutter slowing down, you doing the same. The little things. He looks over his shoulder without stopping, goes, “It’s ahead.” “It stinks,” Alex says. “Maybe your mom’s been sleeping out here,” Gutter says, and everybody does an ‘Ohhhh’ thing, and Sharice takes off her headphones, goes, “What?” “We’re here,” you say, “almost.” And then you’re here, for real. And you don’t see anything less boring than anything you walked into last night, just a small section, maybe, like, hexagon shaped, where there are no trees, and the grass appears to be sort of overgrown. You all stand around like idiots for a second, you and Gutter trading a look, him sharing it with Sharice, going, “He was just chilling here, then he saw us, and he ran to us, and we came back, there wasn’t—” And Alex steps forward, points at the empty area, moving his arm in a swirl, like you need to look at everything. “How could the grass grow like this? Shouldn’t it be trampled down, like, a little bit.” “It’s just grass, though. My dog eats shit, and is fine. Like, shit from things it’s never met. Like, just shit for shit’s sake, ya know?” Lucee goes, “What’s that smell, then?” And you see it, obscured by the grass the animals aren’t interested in—a body. A fucking body. You sigh. It’s dead, this body, clothed, but rotting, but only for days, probably—this isn’t an old-school dead guy, but someone new to the club. You look at Gutter, and he mouths the word ‘what?’ at you, and you make an ‘of course’ face, but you don’t want to be the one to say it, because you don’t want to be the one who’s seen it, and so you don’t say anything, let someone else find it, and make a big deal about it, and let someone else cry, and someone else come up with a plan, and ask you what you think, and you’ll say ‘whatever you guys think’, because this isn’t your dead body, and it isn’t your dog, and you have to dig so hard to feel things sometimes, especially as you get older, and you realize people are just going to find a reason to do what they want anyway. ‘Are you depressed?’ You look at Gutter, who wants you to tell him whatever you’re thinking, so he can be on your team. ‘What’s wrong with saying what you’re thinking? It doesn’t hurt, I promise.’ He goes, “What’s up?” You shake your head, sigh, not sure if you’ve already done it, feeling good about it either way. “There’s a body over there?” Sharice gasps, which you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen a person do, in real life. “What?” You nod toward where it is; it’s obvious, once you know where to look. You look down at the grass, watch the legs of the others rush by you, save Gutter, who either already saw it, or isn’t interested in doing so. He just stands opposite you, watching you, frowning like he’s sorry he made you be the one to say it, as you watch the others, and try anticipate where this all will go from here. Gutter puts a hand on your shoulder, his expression making it clear he didn’t see it before you did. You put your hand on his wrist. Lucee starts to scream, all over Alex’s oh-shits, and Sharice’s attempts to say stuff about god, and how dear such a thing is to her, the idea of it, or maybe what she sees as its presence here, as the plan ultimately becomes to simply run away, hysterically, in some cases, which you are okay with, despite your shoes, which did not see this coming, and so force you to simply walk as fast as you can, Gutter choosing to flee at the same speed, if only to be near someone who is not screaming, or crying, or mad at him.
“Can you see me?”
“I feel bad.”
“Why—because you can, or because you can’t? Or because I’m sending off, like, radiation or something.”
“Because I can. See you, I mean. Like, I feel emotionally bad, for you, though.”
He laughs. “Um…”
“Nah, just, ‘cause, like, you used the word invisible. And, like, I can see you, so.”
“Can you…move? This is honestly amazing, though. If I wasn’t suffering from a depression I’m too poor to medicate, and, so, therefore, high right now, I’d be, like, flipping out.”
He turns to face you. You can sort of see through him, but he’s mostly just…transparent. “You’re like a human metaphor,” you say, and there is a pause, and Harley goes, “I don’t get it.” You snort. “Nothing. This is cool, though. I guess I said that already. You can touch stuff, right?” He walks up to—the things visible through him shimmer ethereally as he moves—and, when he reaches you, he hugs you. You can’t smell him. It really is like he isn’t there, except, there’s the touching. He lets go of you. He goes, “I snuck downstairs at about two in the morning last night and made a grilled cheese sandwich, invisible. I got caught, however.” “Maybe because you’re not invisible.” He snorts. “Tell me about it. I’m invisible to me, is the thing. It takes getting used to, like knowing how loud to talk when you’re wearing headphones, only…with your eyes. I don’t know how to explain it.” “No, it’s cool. I get it.” He turns visible. It’s like when food coloring is dropped into a glass of water, the slow unfurling of color. It’s pretty fucking trippy, and you grin at him. He grins back. You look at the floor. “When did this start?” You ask him this. “Um…lemme tell you inside. We’re not gonna hear the pizza guy out here. Obviously.” “True.”
The two of you walk from the side of his town house, back toward his place, which is a couple doors down. It’s a nice day out, which has been happening a lot, despite the December-ness of it all, though the nights are always bitterly cold, unless it rains, then they’re simply wet. His parents are off from work, but they are not home, and neither is his younger sister, Kennedy, as they have taken a trip to the outlet mall upstate, where they can do cheap, bulk-style Christmas shopping, even though they don’t really celebrate Christmas, as his parents are hippy, artist types, who do the spiritual-but-not-religious thing, which you don’t get—you feel like they’re just, at the very least, agnostics, who are too guilty to acknowledge it, but whatever, his parents are cool, and loving, and so they can call themselves whatever they want—but the rest of their family expects gifts, will give gifts, and so there is Christmas shopping. The stairs are to the left when you enter Harley’s front door, and he’s trudging up them, and so you follow. You leave the door open. He sits at his desk chair; you sit on his bed, lie back, look over at his screensaver—a slideshow of whatever pictures are on his hard drive; you look away—you don’t like looking at pictures, in part from fear of having to look at yourself, in part because you don’t like look at good times had without you; you don’t spend much time on Facebook for this same reason. You’re looking over at the open doorway now, at the tan carpet there. You go, “So what happened?”
He takes his cell phone out of his pocket, connects it to the white chord snaking out of his laptop, swings the chair so that he’s facing you directly, though you’re still looking out into the hall. “It happened after I broke up with Shelly, which…I had, like…it felt like life-threatening anxiety, basically, and I had it for like a week leading up to it. ‘Cause I wasn’t even cutting her out of my life like that, I was…she was already seeing someone else, basically, and, like, waiting for me to…she didn’t—” “I know, dude.” You say this last bit. Shelly and Harley were friends, but then they dated, but then he went to Nashville, with his other friend, Tara, who was Shelly’s best friend, and you, to see Tara’s older brother, Joe, who graduated, and went to school out there, and still keeps in touch with the three of you, obviously, and he hooked up with Tara there, kissing-wise, only it was a triple-type kiss, with you, and Tara came back, as you all did, and she told Shelly, only about her part, and so Shelly and Tara were no longer friends, and Harley spent less time with you, because he had work to do, to keep his girl, but then she met someone else, online, and they loitered in each other’s arms for a bit, until he gathered the balls to let go, of her, and their routine, their mutual friends. You didn’t so much get removed from his Awkward List as much as the Awkward List became the only list left, the only people who he could talk to—or maybe the lists just switched roles, as they tend to. Whatever! He looks at the doorway, like maybe you’re actually looking at something, but now you’re looking at him, and so he looks at you, and you look at his t-shirt. It’s got Casper on it, the ghost. Cute. He goes, “Well, yeah, so…the first time it happened, I was freaking out, like, doing that thing where you’re imagining the conversations that are being had about you, behind your back, and there’s no way to know what they’re even saying, but you know everything about yourself, and so you know every bad thing they could possibly think of?”
You blink at him now. He has to shave. You like him this way, though. “Was that a question? And you haven’t shaved…”
He rubs it his stubble. “It’s been two weeks and this is all I got. So sad. But, nah, I’m just saying, I was freaking myself out, in my bedroom, and I didn’t…this was before I reached out to you—before the other night—and I didn’t know what to do, and so I just closed my eyes, really hard, and when I opened them, I was gone.”
He smiles at you, you sit up. Maybe you’re supposed to be comfortable. Maybe you’re supposed to be here. He goes, “You joke, but, I can’t see myself the way you do. I don’t even show up in mirrors. To myself. And I’ve been doing crazy shit around town, at night, thinking no one can see me, when all this time they’ve been seeing some shimmering Predator thing skinny-dipping in their pool, or trying to make it look like their dog is floating, or whispering their name from behind bushes. Kind of embarrassing, now that I think about it.”
“Maybe not everybody can see you, even vaguely.”
“Why you, then? What’s, like, the special difference? Besides your eyes, I mean.”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe I just like it when you look at me so much that I don’t want it to stop, even when I’m invisible.”
He keeps doing this shit. Since deeming you worth talking to again. This flirtatious garbage that you would’ve eaten up off the floor a month ago, but which kind of makes you angry now, which is dumb, because Harley is good, you think. Like, a good guy to have, and you’re supposed to want him, and you do, but…it’s like you want him to say he’s sorry, and him asking you for massages, or to go on drives with him, drives to nowhere, just drives, or to show you this secret that he hasn’t shown to anyone else, at least not on purpose…you feel like these are apologies, but it’s like your brain isn’t accepting them as that, and you know your brain knows what it’s doing, and that fucking sucks, because your body is going to want this, the moment this is taken away from you, the moment things go back to normal, but you’re thinking about the things he is saying, the things he can do now, and wonder if maybe this is the mark of things being different in a way where everything has been given a new set of rules, a new set of norms; maybe you needn’t be afraid of looking this person in the eye, or anyone else; you haven’t been able to in a long time—it would be nice to do it again. You used to enjoy it. Your thumb-wrestling with yourself, still sitting on his bed. You go, “You…you think there are other people? Who can suddenly do stuff?”
You sneak your eyes up, to his face, and he’s looking at your thumb-wrestling hands, too. He goes, “I dunno. Don’t tell anyone, though, okay? I don’t…I don’t know what to do. I just thought you should know. I thought…I dunno. Like, we could figure it out.”
You nod. “Alright. I’m down. I was just a—”
The doorbell rings. The pizza’s here. Harley beams; you snort. “Finally.”
“Should I answer it see-through?”
You shake your head. “What if we know the guy? Or something happens, later, and he says he’s seen you before?”
“So come down with me. Act like I’m not there. We’ll fuck with him. Come on. You only live once. And barely even then, right?”
You look at his eyes and shrug. “Whatever you want. Sure. Let’s do it.”
He smiles, lopsided. “Alright.”
He stands, clenches his fists, can’t stop smiling, until he does, closes his eyes, and then it’s like a drain opens up inside of him—or like his body is a flying plane, and someone’s opened a door—as all the colorful parts of him, the things he is wearing—all of the easily visible parts—rush toward some hungry point within him, and all that your left with is a warbled view of his screensaver, of his desk, and his chair. You shake your head. You want to use the word ‘weird’, but he’s never used it to describe you, and so you simply don’t know what to say. And the doorbell rings again.
“Can you see me? Like, at all, I mean?”
You stand up, nod. “Yeah. The same way as before.”
He walks away, out his bedroom door, and down the stairs, and you follow him, to see if the pizza man can see him, too. Hoping in a way you are unwilling to acknowledge that you’re really the only one who can, knowing that things do not work that way, even things that cannot really be happening.
Tom lights his cigarette as soon as the first explosion hits. Not the one on the screen, but the one across the street. You’ve got the theater to yourselves—not the whole fucking multiplex, just this screen, for Resident Evil 5, which has been out for weeks; anybody who might otherwise give a shit about people smoking in this non-smoking building will have other things to worry about, starting now.
You woke up this morning feeling remorse, or whatever you call it when you feel remorse before you’ve actually done anything wrong. Guilt. You hate calling things guilt, because, after awhile, it starts to feel like everything you do is caused by guilt or leads to it. You wish you knew more words. You just know you woke up this morning not with the anxiety you’ve been painting as excitement for the last few months, but feeling gutted. Like you’ve been playing a game this whole time, and you finally lost. Like the hopelessness you’d been feeling was your hope, that was hope, shouting at you, letting you know it was there, and you turned your back on it. Your alarm went off at about seven, and Dante called you at about seven-oh-five, and part of you wanted to let it ring—a lot of you did. You wanted to let it ring, and leave it there, and get dressed, and get in your car, and drive to Daly’s and tell him what you did, and apologize, and put a stop to it, together. Dante and Tom are too dumb to do this kinda thing without you; you not being here would’ve been enough, but you’re here, because you picked up your phone, because you finish what you start, to a fault. That used to be your big thing on job interviews, when the manager, or supervisor, or whoever would ask you what you would change about yourself, if you could only change one thing, or if you were someone who only needed to change one thing: ‘I’d know when to give up.’ You wouldn’t phrase it like that, and you’d smile, and you’d get the job, but, the point is, you sighed, rolled over onto your stomach, reached onto your nightstand, and you answered your phone. “Yeah.” “Are you on your way?” “Asshole—I just woke up. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” “Alright, my bad. I’m excited.” “I know. Lemme get ready.” “Alright—I’ll see you. You sure we got everything? You got the text? Like, you checked it was the right one?” You rolled onto your back, sat up, could feel your stomach twisting as your heart looked down on it impassively, knowing it got itself into this. “Yeah, I checked. It’s right.” “Word. Okay, I’ll see you.” You hung up without responding, considered throwing your phone out the window, to be dramatic, that way you could look back on it as something out of your control, like your body just needed to throw the phone, and you powerless to stop it, but you knew you weren’t going to do that, and so scrolled through it instead, scrolled to Daly’s name, backtracked, clicked on the text icon, scrolled for his name there, clicked on it, saw the last conversation you had; the last three months of conversations; all lengthy, sincere responses on his end—all curt, passive-aggressive dismissals on yours. You clicked on the space to type, you clicked ‘Y,’ then you click ‘o.’ You gave yourself a couple of seconds to stare at these letters, to consider what they might imply that you don’t want them to imply; you tried to figure out what you wanted them to imply. You pressed send. You got up and took a shower; you had a clot of clothes to put on, and you didn’t want to have to rush.
You can hear sirens, even over the booming score of the movie. You don’t know what exactly emergency services hopes to accomplish, but, you suppose, it is an emergency; what else are they gonna do? Dante scoots forward in his seat, turns around to see if anyone’s in the projection booth. “This movie kinda blows.” This is Tom. “Can you blow your fucking smoke directly in mouth maybe? Jesus.” This is you. Dante scoffs. “Maron’! What crawled up your ass?” Tom blows smoke in the other direction. “Maybe that’s the problem, it’s been awhile since something has.” You smack the cigarette out of Tom’s hand and sort of squeals in outrage. “What the fuck!?” Dante laughs. “You two…we’re about to be fucking kings. Enjoy the movie. Enjoy the mayhem. Or at least chill on impeding on my ability to do so.” You stare at the screen as Tom picks his stogie up off the floor, sits back up, puffs on what’s left of it. You touch your pocket to make sure your phone is still there, that’s you didn’t leave it somewhere, where you’re getting a text message you’re unaware of, but it’s where you left it, in your pocket, and you reach in for another grip of popcorn as someone is slow-motion impaled onscreen. There’s another real-life explosion, this time a lot farther away. You sigh through your nostrils. “Two more,” you say. “Amen,” Dante says.
“Do you know what we’re looking for? Like, what it looks like, I mean?” This is you, months ago, with Daly, in his attic. There are boxes everywhere. Were. “It looks like a box.” “Smartass.” He turned around, you pointed your flashlights at each other, him looking guilty, but amused. “I don’t know which box. It’s not as old as some of this other stuff. What’s inside is, but the box isn’t. It’s probably under a lot of shit, though. I don’t think he wanted anyone to find it.” “And the cops never came looking for it?” “No.” “And you’re sure it exists?” He shrugged. “I dunno.” “Okay. Lead the way. I was just wondering. You should think about flashlights in the dark as your permanent lighting, though. For your face, I mean. You honestly never looked better.” He rolled his eyes and started creeping further into the dingy attic of no working lightbulbs, and you laughed, said, “I’m not kidding;” you, the master of hurting people’s feelings with your good intentions, by choice. “You’re mad now,” you said, in the way that meant you didn’t want him to be, and he snorted, and shook his head, and said, “I’m not,” softly, then said, “Just keep your damn light steady, and close to mine, so that they’re, like, one big light.” “You got it.”
Dale’s dad was locked up for conspiracy to commit murder. He and four other people. His mom was in the process of divorcing him, and, with his old man’s permission, they were going to have a garage sale, to get rid of his old stuff, some of which was pretty valuable, hence his excuse for being in the attic, while his mother entertained her girlfriends downstairs. “I got it,” he said, after forty minutes of rummaging through dust. It was a flash drive, shaped like an asthma inhaler. You started clapping, wholly uninterested, ready to go back downstairs, to his room, to watch Battle Royale, via Netflix, since that involved lying down, on a bed, in the dark, and not talking, which are the three things you are best at. But you kicking off your shoes and hopping horizontally on the bed wasn’t hint enough for Dale, neither was cuing up the movie and pressing play, as he seemed hellbent on figuring out what was on this flash drive, unwilling to believe that his father was actually capable taking another man’s life, let alone planning to. Not unless it was that man was planning to do something a lot worse. You laid there, head propped up by pillows, trying to feel the subtitled rampage the movie was trying to hand over to you, but Dale was right beside you, computer on his lap, typing away, googling symbols, trying decipher whatever code the information on the drive was written in. You’re not so sophisticated, and so you turned to look at him, said, “You in love with your computer now?” He stopped typing, looked you in the eye; he has an attitude that not a lot of people can stand—you both do. “Who else would I be in love with?” ‘Who do you think?’ you wanted to say, but didn’t. You turned back to the TV. You wanted to sleep there, didn’t want to get in a fight, which was getting easier to do, you suppose, since your feelings were getting stronger, on both sides, and the reality of this was aggravating you both. Your other option was to go home, and listen to your mom get pounded down the hall, by whichever boyfriend happened to be over that night. ‘I feel like you should pay attention to me when I’m here. And, if you’re not going to, then I think you should include me in whatever it is you are paying attention to.’ You should’ve said this, but again, he didn’t think you gave a shit, and you weren’t ready to lose that power. But it was obvious, like most true things, and he said, “I think my father discovered something that isn’t supposed to be able to happen, but was gonna happen anyway. And I think he was trying to stop it.” You sat up, suddenly very interested in this. “Something like what?” “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Your phone vibrates. Your breath catches. Dante has moved on to his Twizzlers, Tom giving you both the silent treatment, only talking to himself, in exclamations, in reference to the movie. You stand up. “I gotta piss. I’ll, um…see what’s what out there. Let you guys know.” “Word up,” Dante says, and you hustle down the aisle, out of the theater, to the lobby, where you quickly pull out your phone, say, “Hello,” and hear Daly say hello back. “I feel honored,” you say. He snorts. “I got work in few. I didn’t have time to wait for a text. What did you want?” You walk past posters for movies you never plan to see, as a theater employee rushes past you, murmuring into a walkie-tallkie, and another runs up to you, goes, “Is anyone else in that theater?” You shake your head. Daly goes, “Hello?” The usher goes, “Alright—we’re evacuating the building. We’re sending everyone out the exit on the opposite side. Something’s going on outside, and we need everybody out.” You nod, do not walk to the opposite end of the building, but toward the front, where the walls are made of glass, and you can see the street beyond. The building across the street is on fire. People are screaming. There is another explosion, somewhere in the area. There’s only one left. You go, “I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” This was you, a few weeks ago, on the deck of a bar, a bar Daly walked into with his friend Madeline and some of the other chicks he hangs out with, the people who began to fill his time after he told you he didn’t want to talk to you anymore, when he found out you made a copy of the flash drive, gave it to your friends—specifically, Dante—who figured out that what your father’s friend was originally trying to conjure what you referred to as a god, but what Dale corrected you as “a demigod.” “So you know.” “Of course I fucking know, dude. That’s not the point. That was never the point.” “Dude, I know. I’m sorry!” This was after you’d knocked back a dozen or so shots of tequila, working up the nerve to say hi to him; after you pretended to listen to Tom tell stories about the time he took ecstasy with his ailing grandmother, and the time some thuggish dude told him that he liked his style, a dude who turned out to be a modelling scout; you nodded and feigned the best smiles you could, but you looked over his shoulder as much as you could, watched Dale laugh, genuinely with his friends, laughter you felt like they were stealing from you, each iteration of it like a trip on a time machine, to a place where you mattered even less than you do now. You were all outside, on the bar’s deck, where smokers chilled, and those too into personal space to be risk getting crammed against the people sweating on each other inside the bar proper. It was a chilly night, and the moon was what you called full, but what Dante called almost-full. You had to pee. You walked toward the building, toward Dale, and his friends, smiling like it was a joke, like this was all a joke, you even being here, and he saw you, and you stopped, grinned, nodded, “Hey.” He nodded back. You waved him over. That’s when your conversation started. “I’m sorry!” He shook his head. You two were off in your own corner by this point, a corner of the deck away from your friends, and his. “I know. Me, too. Not…I’m sorry I involved you in it when I didn’t want you involved in it.” You shook your head now, put your drink on the balcony, took his hand, “Don’t be, though. I don’t even wanna do it, I just…I can’t let them do it without me. Without us. It can’t hurt us. When it comes. We’ll be in charge of it. You, too. There’s five of us. The four of us, and Tom’s grandma, who lives in, like, Tennessee, but it won’t…when it comes, we’re gonna use it to make the world safer. We’re not…we’re not trying to hurt anyone. Dude, I miss you.” He looked over to his friends, who seemed to have gone inside. “You’re an idiot.” You let go of his hand, shrugged. “I know.” “You don’t know. This thing is fucked, and Dante knows it, and he’s using it, because you’re good at shit like this. At getting shit done. If it was him and Tom, they’d be fucked, but they have you, and they’re fucking using you.” You shrugged again, picked up your drink. You’d been bumming stoges from Tom all night, and wished he was over here, just so he’d give you one, then go away again. “They’re my friends.” “I know who you’re friends are. You don’t need to always be telling me things that are obvious.” “Daly, I…I can’t stop making mistakes, I don’t know why, it’s like I don’t wanna be happy in the way I can—like, if I can’t be happy in the way other people are, then I don’t wanna be happy, and it’s dumb, but you aren’t one. Of my mistakes, I mean. Fucking honestly. I held my hope against you, instead of…instead of I don’t know what. This was me trying to change it so we didn’t have to be afraid to be here, anymore. I know you aren’t, but I was programmed, and I know that’s not an excuse, but…like, I did it so that that world wouldn’t exist anymore. So I… Jesus. In something like this,” you pointed your thumb at him, then at yourself, then at him, “there’s always a lucky one. And I know it was me.” “Well…lucky you.” He walked away, and you watched him go, more resolved than ever to give this world what it had coming to it. It wanted a god, and you’d give it one.
“You’re on the news. This is you, right? These buildings blowing up?” You nod out the multiplex windows. “Yeah, that’s us.” He doesn’t respond. You look at your phone to make sure the call is still connected. It is. You go, “The explosions…the fire doesn’t consume, it only burns. The people…they’ll be okay.” “Lucky them.” You look down at your shoes. You guys had to dress up because one of the orbs had to be placed on top of the university’s arts building, and there was a fundraiser today—you had to look like you belonged in order to get up to the roof, to place that portion of the ritual. You feel dumb even using these words. You feel dumb. “Where are you?” He sighs into the phone. “Home.” “Can I come there?” He laughs. “Why?” “Because I don’t wanna be here. I wanna be there.” “You want to be where you’re not.” You shrug, hear a commotion behind you, see an usher leading a crowd from a screening of The Master, down the hall that leads to the designated emergency exit. You see Dante and Tom, standing outside the theater you just exited. They’re not smiling. They’re watching you. You hear the final explosion. They look at each other; Dante nods at Tom—you turn back around, face the windows, the street, the people fleeing, crying—you notice the sky darkening prematurely. It’s coming. Whether it’s what you expected or something altogether worse, it’s coming. “Daly.” “Yeah?” “Do you know how to stop it?” You can hear him exhale. “Yes.” “Are you going to?” There’s a hand on your shoulder. It’s Dante. He nods toward the front door. It’s time to meet your maker. You nod back. “Yes.” Daly says this. “Who the fuck is that? Let’s go.” Tom says this. Daly clears his throat. “It’ll take a couple hours. Don’t let them do anything stupid. The thing…the thing you brought here…” “I know. It’s bad. I’m sorry.” “It’s okay.” “Thank you. If I had a flashlight, it’d be on you right now.” He snorts. “I know. Keep your boys in check.” “I’ll do my best. Let me know.” “I will.” “I’ll see you?” “Around, yeah.” “Okay. Goodb—later, I mean. I…later.” “iLater right back at you.”
Dante and Tom are already on the sidewalk, staring at something in the sky. “Sir!” It’s an usher, behind you. “Sir, it’s not safe out there.” You go, “I know,” and push open the glass door, resume your post as the leader of your friends, which isn’t saying much for a man who never really had any.
“Are you in a good mood today?”
You turn down your music. You’re writing a paper, and that mostly consists of too-strong, instant coffee with no milk (because you don’t like being responsible for milk, not because you don’t like it), and blasting out your ears to driving music, as if daring yourself to no write as fast as you can, to keep up with it. It doesn’t really generate high quality papers but it does ensure finished ones. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Is this a bad time?”
You snort. “By way of response, I will offer my own question—who are these people answering their cell phones at a bad time?”
She thinks about whether this should piss her off, that you’ve said this to her, instead of just answering her question. This is Kelsi, and she is your friend. “Do you want to know what I said the first time?”
“Are you feeling good today?”
“What do you mean? Like, am I sick? Or, like, am I up for something? I’m writing a paper right now, but…”
“Are you in a good mood, is what I first asked. Do you feel at peace today? Like you’re a part of the forward thrust of time, and not at odds with it; like the world was designed for someone like you to succeed, not just those better at doing what’s expected of them, and that it’s only a matter of time? Like everything is going to work out, at least today’s portion of it? Like time is ultimately forgiving? Or do you kinda feel like a new ship sails every day, and that maybe letting them go is the wrong approach—thinking there is somewhere you belong is the wrong approach—and there is no point in chasing after them, and so you’re just filling your time with things shaped like possibilities, but that feel like they aren’t really there…that only an idiot thinks of things in terms of fairness, so maybe you need to come up with a better word for it…”
You roll your desk chair so that it’s not facing your computer but your messy room. Your cat is in there somewhere. “You’re on drugs, correct?”
It turns out Kelsi is on drugs. Not perpetually, just right now. You’re jittery from the coffee, and her little speech didn’t help. “Are you okay?” She is. “Where are you?” Paul’s. “Did you…how, like, can I help you? I don’t know what drugs you’re on, so I don’t know how gentle to be with you. And sorry for my passive-aggressive answering a question with a question before.” Yes, she called you for a reason. And you can help her, by helping Paul, which is her reason for calling. She is on a cocktail, and, aw, you’re sweet, she forgives you.
You’re taking two classes this semester, an attempt at dipping your toe back into academia after abandoning to follow love across the world, sort of embarrassingly missing the sign that love moved that far, in part, to no longer have to deal with you. You win some, you lose some, or, in your case, you lose some, you snooze some. You’re not even mad, at yourself, because you don’t really see the use in acknowledging such a reality, and you don’t really hang out with anyone else, not lately, and so there’s no one else to really be mad at. The people who aren’t around, maybe. Your cat, who kinda sucks, now that you think about it. “You there?” You spin back toward your computer. “I’m here. What…like…what’s my role in your day? Or is this it?” You haven’t seen Kelsi in maybe a month. You like her, though, and you never yell at her in your mind, like you do with most people you don’t like calling but wouldn’t mind hearing from. You don’t hate her, or feel stuck with her, and so you’re hoping this call is to ask you to come be someplace you are not, because that is a place you would really like to go, sometime soon.
Paul’s mom is remarrying, and, before the wedding, and before the honeymoon, they are selling the house that once belonged to Paul’s dad, before he crashed his car into oncoming traffic, on purpose, when Paul was in high school; Paul’s mom has since rented it out to him and a couple of his friends, but are now being evicted, because his stepdad-in-two-weeks thinks Paul is a piece of shit (only kind of true), who makes his mom cry, and takes for granted the idea that there are people who owe him something (only kind of true), who maybe needs to suck life’s dick for awhile, see how much he likes it. Paul is having a get-together, and he wants anyone to come who might need to punch something, like a newly-installed bathroom mirror, or smash something, like a Vienna, full spectrum, 18-light crystal chandelier, and the ceiling fan attached to it; are you in a good mood today? “I cant be there till later. I gotta write for a little bit, or I won’t even be able to smile today, even when I want to. But after.” “Splendid.”
Paul lives on the boulevard, the busy street that runs through this town and the next one, four lanes, the kind of place you couldn’t really have an outside cat, or a child too young to know how unfriendly moving cars can be, but a perfect place for a group of college dropouts moving to LA in two weeks to squat until this plan becomes their only choice, which they’ve done, pushing life into a thing that feels like it could only ever be this way, pushing notwithstanding. You take the side door, as the front door seems to be freshly painted, taped off—it’s just about fully dark out now, and you get the nerves you get, walking from your car, listening to traffic sounds, being cold, that you get the blanket nerves with which you are stricken whenever you are alone, and about to walk into a room, or a building, where the people have gotten used to the mood, have decided what they expect from this mood, and will know when it has changed; and so you have to somehow enter the room as if you’d always been there, like nothing’s changed, like you may as well not even be here. It only lasts until you reach the side door, and let yourself in, and let mixture of conversation and music (the former overpowering the latter) introduce you to the kind of night this will be, other people not even visible at first, until you walk through the kitchen, into the living room, where you see Stanley and Kip, two people you haven’t seen for maybe a couple of months, maybe longer, both of whom are sweating, one of whom is bleeding from a cut on his cheek, neither of them someone who lives here. Stanley is someone you always thought of as maybe smarter than you, except he was raised by evangelical parents, rejects society by being a drug dealer, but can’t sleep unless he prays, constantly feels like he’s being watched, even now, on whatever he’s on; you shake his hand first, only because he isn’t bleeding, and you kind of want an explanation for who gets to bleed tonight and who doesn’t, figure it’ll buy you some time. Kip is a shirtless loud-talker, though he is wearing a shirt tonight. He is also bleeding. You don’t know where the music is coming from, but it’s the type that needs to be loud to be liked, and it is definitely not loud. “I let Stan punch me.” Kip says this, while you’re shaking his hand, murmuring catchall wassups. “Is it bad?” You look at Stan, who grins. You go, “You’re bleeding.” You flinch at rhythmic smashing sound, look over Kip’s shoulder, toward the stairs, watch an old-school television tumble down them, hear a group of girls whoop in approval, see one of them halfway down the stairs—a blonde girl, maybe too young to be holding a beer, defying the odds and holding one anyway. Grinning, freckled. “Aw, you soft-dicks didn’t see that shit? Okay, we’re gonna do the sink next.” She runs back up the stairs. You look at Kip, shrug. “You might need a band-aid. Like, a big one, though.” He looks in your eyes like he’s holding your hand, and he touches his face with two fingers, where, you suppose, his face feels like more than just his face, and he pulls his fingers away, sees bleeding, nods. “Fuck.” Looks at Stan. “Fuck.” “I told you! My bad, bro; I was aiming for your temple, to be honest.” Stan says this. Kip whimper laughs. The music chugs anemically. “You guys fucking ready???” The girls upstairs again, a different girl’s voice this time. Stan puts his hand behind Kip’s head, brings Kip’s face closer to his, kisses his forehead, kisses his wound, his lips now wearing the boy’s blood, like a wino who doesn’t get it; they are not lovers, but they are on drugs. Toward the stairs, you shout, “Give us a sec! I’ll tell you when!” “OKAY!!!” You look at Stan, “You’ll get him a bandy for his face, or you want me?” Stan is licking/wiping off his lips, laughing at himself, sullenly responds, “I’ll fucking do it. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I was just trynna make him dizzy so his shit would kick in. His molls, or whatever, not his head.” He laughs. “I got you, bro.” “I’m okay,” Kip says. “Are you?” He’s asking you; you don’t know what he means, but you know what you’re supposed to say, and you nod, you say, “Yeah, man. I’m okay. You know where Kelsi, or Paul is?” “Basement.” You look back into the kitchen, as if to make sure the basement door is still in there. It still is. The music shouts quietly along, and you go, “It’s nice to see you guys.” You don’t know it until you say it, but it feels true enough, so you go with it, and so do they, smiling at you, nodding. “Word, man,” Kip says, then, “Aw, the fuck!” as blood spills into his mouth, and you walk to the bathroom door, open it, hear a louder version of the upstairs music, turn your head toward the spot where you just stood, shout, “Ready!!!” and enter the basement to the ratchet tones of an upstairs sink clamoring its way to the first floor, as you try to step into the basement as quietly as possible, already see a reason to smile, playing with his cell phone, on the bottom step, looking up at you, like you justified this place even being here. You sit down next to him, wrap your arms around your knees, look at your shoes, smell his cologne, or deodorant, or detergent, or something; you bump your shoulder into his. “What’s up?” He is Brion, and he lives here. “What’s up, yourself.” You shrug, pick a strand of cat hair off your sneaker. “Not a lot, man. You on drugs?” He puts his phone away, snorts, holds a full-looking beer. “No. You?” You shake your head. “No.” He grabs the brim of your hat, lowers it so it more or less covers your eyes; you smile and turn away, but you leave it there. Look at his shoes—he isn’t wearing any. He leans into you. “You want to be?”
Apparently you do. You figure the thing that bothers you most about losing control of yourself—even for a second, which is inevitable, though not quite to this degree—is what it reveals about you. Not that knowing things about someone ultimately makes them of no use—once you know enough, what good are they? (with some of us arriving running through the ‘enough’ finish line tape with confused expressions, wondering what we just one. poor us!)—a part of you wants to believe that the person about whom everybody knows everything is probably the freest person in the room…but…you support yourself, and all of the things about yourself you’ve got to be okay with even when other people aren’t, and you make that manageable by isolating yourself and ensuring that whatever’s wrong with anybody else—and how that might affect what they think of you—comes nowhere near what’s wrong with you, and how the limits the ways in which you understand yourself. Fuck you, though; this bullshit is a way to ease your silly ass into the understanding that a dog made of rolling flames isn’t really pushing a ball-shaped world out of a crack in this world, and that crack does not exist inside of you, and that warmth in your chest is heart palpitations; the fun kind, but still. Relax. Or don’t. You know what?—don’t. Your heart has worked harder than this; it’ll make it.
Paul—in the midst of mayhem—is having an IM conversation with his future landlord, looking like just about the calmest thing you’ve ever seen, was the one you were talking to when the beer in your veins stopped doing the Molly Ringwald dance and realized there was something else in your blood with it, turned around, was flooded with a new, more powerful feeling, one borne of some sense of darkness but that brought with it a light that made you realize how beautiful Paul was, sitting there in his black sweatshirt, on his little computer, talking about how his Uncle lives in LA, works as a foley artist, and so it’s not like he won’t have any family out there. “That’s awesome,” you said, and he shrugged, and you put your hand on his shoulder, and you said, “No, really, dude—you deserve to be happy. Everyone does.” He thought about this, looked at you without turning his head, nodded. “Um, thanks, man.” You beamed at him—maybe; maybe you beamed—took your hand away. “No problem. I hope it works out.” He said, “Me, too,” and grabbed his beer, and you looked over at the couch, at Kelsi, and Bert, the other roommate, who were making out on the couch, who have been doing some version of that (pushing some part of their faces against some part of the other one’s face) since you came downstairs—you looked at Brion, and something slammed down on the ceiling—something on the first floor; the cheers for its destruction mixing with the music kicking at the speakers you still haven’t located, adding a shoegazey rush to the disaffected indie rock trying its best to be hard, helping it to succeed, your eyes moving down from the ceiling, a distinct image of what’s going on upstairs formed in your head, impossibly, and back to Brion, who is still rocking socks without shoes, is trying to run up the far wall, with a skateboard in his hand, which he’d slide under his feet, just as he’d reached the highest point on the wall his body was willing to go, would then slide down the wall, with his new wheels, and slam directly onto his back—you winced, and he got back up, as if he and the floor were made out of the same things, and them touching each other was part of the point, because what different did it make, if it hurt a little; he got back up, and kept trying to skate up the wall, like he expect it to go somewhere, like he could just keep going, up the ceiling, or maybe the wall would tip over, and he’d slide down to whatever it led to, and you’d be stuck here, alone, trying to convince these people that your presence wasn’t getting in the way of the happiness they had before you showed up; you walk over to Brion as something huge explodes upstairs, and gunfire rings out, or so your brain thinks, your freaking out brain, the chemicals crashing its party, your poor, dumb brain, still not getting it; the world ends above you, and Brion’s back slams against the floor, and, since this is now, and not then, he looks up to see you staring at the space he’s occupying, his head resting on your shoes, your brain resting on the space that leads to his face. “You should teach me something.” He props himself up on his elbows, still looking up at you, not that it’s comfortable for him, but he’s willing to do it anyway, and the fire dog writhing inside of you feels good about this. “Like what?” You shrug. “Something that looks cool, and I can say you taught me it, when people see me do it. And then they’ll ask about you, and I’ll say…he’s in LA…but he was awesome, and he knew a lot more than that, he just left before he could teach me everything, and then they’ll be sad, like they missed out, too…and then I’ll change the subject. And then I’ll call you, and be like, someone asked about you today, and you’ll be like, oh yeah, who? And then I’ll tell you that story, and then we’ll stay on the phone all night, and it’ll be like I never ignored you. And it’ll be like you never left.” He lets his elbows go away, so his head can rest on your feet again. “I know just the trick,” he says. “You just gotta give me sec.” You give him more than that, rest on the space he isn’t occupying until he’s ready to do it again.
Your sister’s gotten herself a little bit pregnant. This is a reason for you to come home. According to text messages from your mother, of which you’ve received many. Her typos make them too endearing to ignore, even without the inherent guilt-trip of the word ‘family’, which she always spells correctly. Having to do things that aren’t a part of your daily routine makes you uncomfortable, and sort of angry? Like, having to get gas really puts you out, and not just financially. If you could get it delivered, you would. You don’t know how that would work, you just want it to. But as you sat at your computer, watching a cam copy of the Hunger Games, the sound quality shit, your cat meowing at you, not impressed with the off-brand ‘indoor formula’ you bought him with the chump change left over from whatever you had in your pocket, after feeding yourself, your friends not answering your texts, you feeling stupid, not for sending them, but for who you sent them to, knowing there are people out there who want to talk to you, would love to see, and knowing those are the people you feel you can do without; this guilt is of your own making, and it is what drives you to send ‘Ok’ to your mother, who you’re surprised even knows how to text? (Like it’s so hard! You’re a jerk). You pack a bag, realize most of your clothes are dirty, pack a laundry bag, leave a note on the fridge, for your roommate, that you will not be there, for you don’t now how long, that your mutual cat is his cat, at least until you get back, whereupon he can harangue you until you feel guilty about that and promise to do the same for him one day.
Your parents have a nice house for the sticks, your dad a retired military guy with a failed car-dealership under his belt, your mom a needs-to-retire-already interior designer obsessed with the 60s and imposing polka-dots on her clients. You were never too close with either of them, mostly gave them a really hard time about how uncomfortable you felt with the idea that you looked like them, that no matter how old you got, or how refined, or how faraway you journeyed, people would always wonder where you came from, and the answer would always be here.
“You don’t shave?” is the first thing your dad says to you. He’s the one who meets you at the door. It’s been a few months—Christmas was the last time you popped in, and not even to spend the night. Before that, you hadn’t seen them since pretty much the Christmas that preceded it. That one was a lot worse; money was a lot tighter (Mad Men finally trickled down to rural Americans, in the interim, you suppose). It was pretty much a tension-filled, gift-less dinner, one you saw coming, but that you walked into, because it was Christmas, and there was nowhere else for you to go. There isn’t any of the pressure of living up to any sort of imaginary holiday spirit, only the matter of dealing with your sister, Molly, and her situation, and so shaving never even crossed you mind. You don’t like shaving, and you do it as infrequently as possible. “I shave all the time,” you tell your father, watching your mother pour a cup of tea, “my face just won’t take the hint.” Your mom turns to you, smiles, says, “You eat?” Her favorite line, and you think about it, and you say, “Barely?” and your brother, Scott, walks in the room, rolls his eyes at the sight of you, and you smile. “What’s up?” “You don’t shave now?” You shake your head, defiantly. “Nope.”
Scott is younger than you, but not by so much that he didn’t get the gist of what being like you would mean for his life, what it would be like, how hard it would be to get along with your folks, with the other people around here, his peers, if he was too much like you, a purposeful outsider, even if his feeling justified, and so he wasn’t like you, isn’t, at least on the outside, and so, tonight, you are doing something for him that no one has ever had to do for you, that no one ever will—you are going to watch him play football, amen.
Football is a thing in your town. Like, high school football. It’s a Friday, and everyone comes to vicariously live out their various fantasies through these boys crashing into each other on the field of Rutherford B. Hayes High School—the adults tapping into their memories of being here back then, and doing this same thing, and life just being this looped sample, this conveyor belt, eventually dumping them off, into nothing; the young people wanting to be the girls chanting on the sidelines, or the dudes actualizing their potential on the field, or wanting to be with a combination of whichever they could get their hands on, if only they came here often enough, cheered for them loud enough, ‘liked’ enough grammar-is-beside-the-point, lol-suffixed updates on Facebook. Schmoozing those who mattered most in hopes of getting some leftover attention. He’s a receiver, your brother. You know enough about football—from playing video games, and growing up in this town—to know that Scott is good at it, despite your sense that his involvement is at least partly joyless sacrifice. Or maybe your projecting. Or trying to reject the unselfconscious exuberance exploding from the crowd whenever a play is made that even alludes to the fact that scores are made in this game—the comfort-zoning-out of these people, the thermoses full of beer, on the warmest night of the year so far, the sweatiest. The girls and boys, rocking their barely-there clothes, in tribute to an incoming season that will require nothing short of constant diet-justifying midriffs, and farmer tan-exposing muscle tees. The older folks rocking the school’s—nee, the towns!—colors. You and your folks sit high up in the bleachers, your dad convinced he can get as tanked as he wants, as long as he’s far enough away from the field that authorities figures can’t actually smell it, or see him doing it. You sit between them, a side-effect of letting your mom lead the way. On the field, your brother gets railed trying to catch a ball thrown poorly, way beyond his reach. The crowd groans in unison, a Greek chorus caring about this person, and his safety, his future; a person who actually looked up to you at some long ago, hard-to-imagine point in your lives. A lineman helps your brother to his feet and the crowd claps, and your mother whoops, and you grin, turn to your dad, who is pulling his thermos away from his lips, and you reach out a hand, take it, as he offers it, chug back a bit of straight whiskey (melted ice offering a slight ease to its bite), as your mom goes, “Look who made it.” Your sister Molly is climbing the bleacher steps with her friend Valerie, not looking very pregnant. You don’t know how often Molly comes to these things, but her face strains with the effort of one trying their best to put their best one forward. You don’t know what’s going on in her mind or her life aside from what your mother tells you, and your mother isn’t the most reliable narrator, probably hasn’t been too kind to Molly through all this. Your sister is two years older than you. You make eye-contact, and you nod at her, and she nods back, doing that tight-lipped harmless face people do, when they want you to know it’s okay, and you do one right back at her. Your dad nudges you, to slide down, so that they can sit next to him, closer to the aisle (farther away from your mother, is the implication here), and you obliging, clinging onto the whiskey thermos, liking it, now that you’ve gotten to know it.
After the game (won by the home team, hurrah, and all that), you lurked around the parking lot, where a sort of loose crowd was forming, of younger people confirming the plan, for the rest of the night, and of the older people who gave some of them rides, waiting to confirm what comes next for them, or even making plans of their own, talking loudly with their friends and neighbors, everybody waiting for the team to emerge, cleaned up but bruised, from the locker room, the signal there’s even anyplace else to be. You stay off to the side, not sure where your folks are, not worried, their house close enough to the school that you could walk, if you had to; you lean against the fence surrounding the property, stand in the grass, staring at a little pothole, in the concrete just past it, feeling pretty good—not in a cosmic, really sense, but in a warm, whiskey sense; a what-are-thoughts-anyway sense—and a shape steps up to you and it says, “Good mood?” You keep your smile, because they don’t come too often, when people are around, and you like for them to at least see that you are capable of it. It’s your sister, no longer with Valerie. You shrug, nod at her. “Felt worse. How are things?” She laughs, dryly, but not rudely. She smirks. “My life is an exercise in slowly rising tension. One I totally had coming, and am determined to enjoy despite it, at any cost. Often unsuccessfully. You?” You shrug again, look back at your pothole. You don’t even remember the question. You hear cheering from over where the fence opens up to the campus proper, see the team spilling out, their adoring town, not knowing any better than to love them. Local papers are here. The closer they get to the playoffs, they might even get TV crews out here. You go, “Same shit, I guess.” “You don’t ever get bored of it?” You look away from the dudes, grinning like movie stars, all of them, at the peak of their powers, their ability to hypnotize whoever happened to casually lay eyes on them, not realizing that BAM, they were seeing someone…and you look at your sister. “Bored of what?” She opens her eyes wider and shrugs. “I dunno! The same shit, dummy. Making excuses for never getting what you want, thereby giving yourself an excuse to never get what you want.” You sigh, smile at her. Put a palm out toward her, toward yourself, back and forth. “Can we not, right now? It’s been a kinda nice night. I don’t bring up your thing, you…you let me just live in my thing, and then we can rip each other apart, tomorrow.” “Come see me tomorrow?” “In the apartment for wedlock babies, or…?” She rolls her eyes. “At work. You can meet Mark.” Mark is the man responsible for your sister’s situation. Half-responsible. He’s older than her, by society’s idea of ‘much’. You gotta admit, though, she doesn’t seem half as freaked out about all this as you thought she’d be, based on how she was, back when you were around more; based on what your mother would say; based on how you would be. Someone approaches the two of you, and you are surprised to see that it is your brother, his hair matted from whatever excuse for a shower he took, his mood buoyant, like there’s something in the air. “Scotty,” your sister says, warmly, giving him a one-armed hug, “good game, honestly.” You’ve never seen them hug, but neither looks uncomfortable with it, and so it’s just another thing you’ve missed out on, you suppose. You feel left out, like it’s all your fault, like running off to find somewhere you belong is the most selfish thing you’ve ever done, and maybe it is, and maybe it only feels like a bad thing because you never actually found it. “Yeah,” you say, “you’re pretty good out there, huh?” He shrugs, snorts, looks at you in the face, and you don’t look away, though it’s kind of your thing. There is an earned strength about him; all of yours has been thrust upon you, by age. “It’s a tough district,” he says, “I guess I’m tryna stand out. This was a good game, though. I’m not always good. You should, um…you wanna hang out?” You can feel Molly eyeing you, you say, “Yeah, totally. Like…yeah, whatever you want.” He chuckles, your dad’s laugh. You’re jealous. “There’s a thing, at this chick’s house. Her dad’s some big-time attorney, and they’re trying to buy friends, so the whole team, and staff, and all our families and local whatevers are invited, so…I’m pretty sure there will be alcohol. Maybe even proper drugs, who knows? We did win, after all.” You nod, glad this buzz is something you’ll be able to hold onto, until morning, whereupon you can hate yourself again. “Ah, true. Word.” “You’re in, then…” You nod. “Yeah.” “Then drive over with me?” “I didn’t drive here. I mean—” “I know, that’s not… I did. Drive here, I mean. What about you?” He nudges one of his sneakers against one of Molly’s. Some bro way over there hoots about nothing in particular. She shakes her head. “I gotta get back. I’m living for three now. But go live. Be un-boring. But come see me tomorrow? Both of you?” You look at Scott, who is looking at her, nodding, and you go, “Definitely,” and now he nods at you, on the same page, which is all you really wanted, and you feel good, and he leads the way to his car, which is another thing he has, that you never did. It’s an old ass Honda, older than him maybe. “Nice car,” you say. He snorts, and you both climb in. Your smile reunites with your face. Amen.
You feel something nudging at your ribs, and you scrunch up your face, in preparation for whatever might confront you, once you open your eyes, and you open your eyes. You’re looking up at Scott, and you’re in a basement, but it’s not your basement—your folks’—it is the party basement, only the party is snoring, all around you. You look down at yourself. You had the piece of mind to at least finagle a sleeping bag—before panicking about not wearing a shirt, you get to know your pillow a little bit, and, lo, it is just your shirt, all balled up. “We should go,” Scotty says. He carries himself like someone who found a much more comfortable place to sleep last night, that you should trust, and you nod, and go, “Okay.”
You sleep a couple more hours, in your old bedroom, at your folks’ place, before Scotty is waking you up all over again, knocking on the bedroom door, coming in, once you’ve given the okay, walking to the foot of the bed, wearing some black-on-black, not-quite-Under-Armour garb, holding a plate of eggs, and toast. It’s two in the afternoon, you just happened to sleep through most so-far proper meals. “We gonna see Molls?” You squint at him, already sat up in bed, this second dose of sleep slipping away from you much more quickly than its older brother did, back at whatever house you drank too much in last night, revealing too much of yourself, in front of people who may not have seen you coming, or known what they invited, when they let you in the front door. Your mind tries to save you from some particular memory, involving parts of some boy’s face, and parts of your own. You take the plate of eggs, and lightly-buttered wheat toast. You go, “Thanks,” go, “yeah. I forgot kinda.” “It’s cool. Eat up, though, huh? I made you a pre-workout drink as well, but I want real energy in you. I’m passing my neuroses onto you. We’re family, after all.” He smiles at you, and you go, “Um…” and he reaches into the pocket of his flimsy shorts, produces a fork, wrapped in a napkin. You take them, go, “Thanks, but, um…did I…do anything, like, to embarrass you last night?” He holds eye-contact with you, not letting his thought process show up on his face, but clearly thinking, clearly trying to decide phrasing and not so much truth. “You’re my brother. You’re my brother, in this town. But, like, cosmically, I feel like we justify each other. And so you could never embarrass me by being different from me. So eat your eggs, man, come on. They’re busy, even on Saturdays.” You nod and start scooping scrambled eggs into your mouth, not realizing until they’re being chewed that there’s cheese among these eggs, feeling your body making plans for its next visit to this place.
Okay, so your sister works at a gym. But not, like, the kind of gym where anybody goes to shed a few pounds, or even one of those gyms where only really athletes go, to bulk up or maintain shape—she works at the kind of gym where fighters go to train, where the personal trainers fancy themselves the MDs of focused aggression and oh-shit abs. “I’ve never been there before,” Scotty assures you on the car ride over, but the barely-concealed glee on his face is all you need to know to be afraid for the next few hours of your life. Your roommate has a pull-up bar. That and a poverty-based diet are the extent of your fitness regiment. Maybe some crunches, and ab-destroying, projectile, post-bender vomiting, but that’s it. You watch Scotty and Mark do drills in the ring—a boxing ring in the center of the gym, mostly filled with dudes, this place—and catch your breath on a bench, with Molly, who works only as a receptionist here, now that she’s come down with a baby. Mark just had you guys do a mess of kettlebell swings, Scott begging for more as you begged for a break. “What do you think of him?” She means Mark, who is 34 but doesn’t quite look it, mostly due to how solid—how fit—he looks, how ABC-Sunday-night-dramedy desirable he looks. The kind of person made for knocking up pretty younger girls. He’s once-divorced and vegan. Even sweaty, he didn’t smell all that bad. You’re not much of a talker in the sense that you’re a dork who likes to read, and be left alone, for fear of what kind of attention you might get; he’s not much of a talker in a way you don’t really know how to understand, or relate to. “He seems alright,” you say. She’s having this baby, and giving this guy a go, this life, and what she’s really asking is if she can count you as an ally, and she can. “Congratulations,” you add, a bit falsely—you’re no good at saying what you’re supposed to—but she seems pleased all the same, so you forgive yourself, watch Scotty climb out of the ring, limp toward the two of you. You clap for him, and he shakes his head, grinning kinda, and you look up, over him, at Mark, who is waving you over; you’re next apparently.
You try to lose yourself in the crouch down, then shooting your legs out, then pulling them back into a crouch, then standing, then grabbing the barbell, then jerking it up, then pushing it over your head, then dropping it, and so on, and so much pain, and you kind of do, but not fully; your brain is only ever too occupied with what it’s missing to be too bothered with how much pain it’s in. Even when you collapse, unable to take anymore lunging, or lifting, or sweating, or being here—or being yelled at, or expected to be stronger than you are, or to fight twice as hard, for a fraction of the happiness your sister finds just by forgetting to take birth control one or two times, or your brother finds, just by following his instincts—when you’re lying in that ring, trying to catch up to your breath, which seems to want its space, all you can think about is yourself, and how you look, and what they will think, of what you want, and how maybe you might be better off just not wanting anything, leaving that to the rest of them, at least until you find something perfect, something that makes everybody happy; someone. Some version of you who isn’t you. Or maybe just you. It’s worked out so far, right? Only you? Mark helps you up, seeing you hurting, not knowing in what way, you only now realizing it’s in several ways, perhaps all the ways, which is oddly invigorating, an understanding of Scotty’s obsession with fitness bleeding under the door of your closed-off mind. “Way to dig it out, brother,” Mark exclaims, patting you on the back, as you walk to the edge of the ring, “that’s how you get it done—mind over matter. Be in your head, and the physical pretty much becomes an afterthought.” You grab the ropes at the edge of the ring, and you laugh, dryly, like your sister, like your mother. You nod like this is something someone needed to tell you. “I hear you,” you say, and try to climb out the ring without falling over.