|Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
You get home from work a little after four. Time to start drinking. First the last of Dwight's good beers. He won't mind if the six-pack has vanished by Sunday. After four years together, your fiancé expects these things of you. Occasionally, you wonder why he didn't propose sooner, but then you remember. All of the screwing around. You have yet to talk about it, although you're pretty sure he knows.
The guys were all alike: some old friends, others barely met along the way. You left McKee's Harbor for Acala at eighteen. Two shit towns in the smallest state just far enough away from each other. The thrill of being someone else here wore off after that first semester. They were all doing the exact same thing.
You know it's not good to think about them anymore, not even when waiting for the night to begin. Friday finally feels different than the rest of your week. Managers have Saturday off. They can show up hung-over and talk about you behind your back. You need to look good tonight so they have something to say.
One down before a shittier beer almost too flat to casually sip. You can't remember who left it in the fridge, when you and Dwight last entertained. He doesn't come out much anymore, but when he does, so much of you is lost between the couch cushions. Drug for drug feels less like it did and more necessary than before. The two of you used to pace yourselves when in the company of friends. A real one will pop up every now and then when you're of sound mind. You have to set a date before talking about the wedding together. This leaves a lot of room between television stations.
There isn't anything on, but you flip like there is. So many stupid shows you shouldn't watch, let alone DVR. The daily dose of broadcasted reality makes your stomach churn more than work. It seemed to go fast enough today. The old hags in the morning followed by a steady string of soccer moms and broken housewives craving something flashy for their designated date night. They used to give you a second look over and occasionally compliment your uniform if the prescriptions worked that day. You'd always react the same, just like momma taught you. Smile and say thank you, before pointing them in the direction of something more expensive. That extra little bit of commission between your fingers still helps you to feel just independent enough. You can leave him at any time.
You know Dwight will eventually be rich and take care of you until you get ugly. You've been working out and trying not to eat as much. Some things go straight to your ass, but it's already 7:30 and you're hungry. The bottles form a star on his coffee table. You'll take it with you when it's over, even though it's his favorite. This reassurance is enough make you feel immune, re-heating Chinese leftovers. Egg roll? Yes please. Some of Dwight's dumplings? Sure. Why not put it on the same plate with your lo mein? You're coming up on crappy Friday night primetime. You can't remember the last time it's taken this long for things to kick start.
The plate's nearly empty when Shelby finally texts you. Rianne's friend, Hector, is having people over. She doesn't say party, which means it'll be a drag. The ladies prepare with cocktails across town. You've only met Hector once. He didn't say much, as if you were too old for him. Seven years used to sound like a lot, but now it sort of just sits there in the background, gathering dust and steam in equal increments.
The leftovers hit the spot but don't do much by way of motivation. You can't remember the last time you felt compelled to create something that was only yours. Not long ago you had an intricate hand in everything. Those friends who stuck around McKee's Harbor became Gods to each other. Some of their concoctions aren't your cup of tea, but you can't justify criticism. Ms. Hollowniczky didn't see much potential in middle school. She'd walk by and say the simplest of things. "You're doing fine, Ginger. Just fine."
It's easier to ignore with Dwight. He understands the problems you don't talk to him about. In your bedroom, you take a moment to see what he took on the trip. All of his finer suits are now empty hangers. You don't know what to wear, whether to shower or see if it's that easy. Flipping from one piece of cloth to the next, you land on the short green dress. Shelby and Rianne haven't seen it yet. That'll give you enough of an advantage.
It's not like high school. They don't matter enough to make you angry or completely uneasy in public, although something doesn't fit when you're with them and their friends. It's not jealousy but a real gut reaction to something less than permanent, a gentle nudge that makes you shower. Dwight used to surprise you with his cock out, ready and willing no matter how little hot water remained. Now you occasionally find tiny sperms stuck to both your hairs in the drain.
Fewer catcalls than usual tonight, even from the lifers lining the sidewalks. Your knees shake, but its camouflage for the rest. They'll barely notice you blending in: girls in short get-ups smoking cigarettes underneath bar umbrellas, chasing after their boyfriends, checking sports scores on cellphones. These little tramps are nothing like you used to be, although a single doubt is enough to walk just fast enough.
No stars tonight. Too much smog from some forgotten industry. The whole day was overcast, while the world spun around you. This dizziness wears off when you finally arrive at their murky apartment building. A simple text helps get your point across. Bitch, I'm downstairs. You hear them shuffling before Shelby swings the door open, steadier than you are. "Hey, sorry," she says.
"No, it's cool." You follow her in.
The two of you catch up since work a few hours earlier. The margarita pitcher is almost empty when you greet Rianne. She's always less happy to see you, but you drink and let them talk about the dim promises spread throughout their weekends. It all sounds incredibly familiar. Shelby acts like Hector's isn't going to be a big deal. The real happening is tomorrow at the Sayonara Club. You've been there so many times under the influence of different crack-ups that no matter what it is, it won't do it for you. Humoring the idea makes you feel worse, as if the time spent between has all been a lead up to something that will automatically fail to meet your expectations. You wish it wasn't always like this, that somewhere on the way to a second pitcher, you had broken in two, straight down the middle, and nobody made a wish afterwards.
It still feels good to sink into the green futon, waiting for the younger half to prepare. Smiling, you think of verses long forgotten, the trials and tribulations of youth. An opinion comes forth every now and then. Shelby looks good, but Rianne needs to brush out the wrinkles in her ensemble. Who the hell are you to talk? By the end of the walk, you could barely feel your knees against the wind. There used to be some justification for talking, dressing, and drinking a certain way, but not anymore.
The worst part is they don't seem to notice. You're their older sister; a faithful mentor on the verge of 30, sloshing her ice around, making it all disappear in the first segment of Top Model. You could have done this at your apartment, although it's been awhile since the blender felt necessary.
The cold doesn't affect you as much when it's finally time to head out again, Shelby and Rianne blocking the breeze. Hector doesn't live too far. You wonder if this is the reason they hang out with him. Location is everything. Those friends once close enough have moved on to broken cities and suburban nightmares. They post pictures of their children and swimming pools. You're not jealous because you've taught yourself to know better by now. They're just as unhappy with just as many dents from head to toe.
The scene is elevated at Hector's. Degenerates spew out of the woodwork with thesis statements tacked to their collars. You hug those you know with enthusiasm while searching for handouts. Some of Fred's expensive beer, then a bong rip courtesy of Dina. Her dreadlocks look a bit grungier than usual. Brown and black dashes shine through the blonde dye job, while all of you sit on a bedroom floor and discuss the downstairs. There are hints of fading attractions between broken pairs. You're nostalgic for the petty thrill of it all: someone new registers on your radar, the two of you dance around the point before flirting and escaping the hullaballoo, down a gritty path to his place or yours.
Settling into the maroon beanbag, you float endlessly on the waves their voices make. Eyes closed, you hear different people talking about the past, how it's shaping them this very moment. You're not going to cry or let them pay attention to how weird you're being. It's not just the pot or alcohol, or Shelby and her friends cackling into the cracked ceiling. You don't miss any of this as much as you'd like to let on, but at the same time, just enough to wish someone was still around to save you from the repetition, someone other than Dwight.
A tiny vibration shakes you enough to sit up, followed by another, and then you check to see whose calling. While a part of you is ready to hit ignore on your fiancé, another wants nothing more than to answer and come up with an excuse for leaving. It isn't Dwight; he's too busy. The other boys know better than to try again. You've cut them down to size or simply made your feelings known through little to no action. Although juvenile at times, it mostly feels like the right thing to do.
Nelson Griggs was always too old for you in a conventional sense. Your drama professor sophomore year eventually married one of his students and moved to North Carolina, starting over again from zero. The two of you were just friends, despite his compliments about your potential. You tried to, but by finals, couldn't distinguish what he said from that of all the others. Why would he be calling you at this hour? Friday nights are reserved for those in the same spare room. You don't say a word to them, standing and exiting into the hallway.
"Hello?" You answer.
"Hey, Ginger. How are you?" Nelson still has a scratchy throat to accompany his light tone.
"Um... fine. How are you?"
"Excellent, truly. I'm back in Acala tonight for a conference tomorrow."
"No. I actually just checked into the Motel 6 on Bryer."
"Well, holy shit..." You're suddenly excited again. "What are you doing tonight, Nelson?"
"Nothing. I've got to get up early for check-in tomorrow, but I figured I'd call and see if you were still here. I mean, around these parts."
"Still here," you smile.
"Far out. Well would you like to meet for a drink or something?"
You work out the details rather quickly. Henrietta's: the old hangout. A sudden snapshot of dim lighting, shit poetry, and watery beer filters in as you inform those in the bedroom of recent milestones. You don't mention Nelson by name. None of them will know who he is anyway. It's a dispersed clump of smiles and variations as you exit. Shelby says she'll talk to you soon. That could fit into any sort of specific timeframe when approaching 11 o'clock. Rianne simply says goodbye, same as Hector and the other boys. You could have any of them all to yourself tonight, but that wouldn't amount to much tomorrow. Conversations on epic stalemates and a loss of foresight. They'd only brag to their friends about the age difference.
Every guest falls out of mind as you walk away past a cloud of smoke on the front porch. They don't know you well enough, which is good. It allows you these simple conveniences. You feel privileged, avoiding the main drags, sticking to the back alleyways. You pass a jock in jersey with his future abortion payment. She has hair like yours used to be. Middle length blonde with straight bangs and a love of all things red. You only stare long enough for her to upturn her nose and pass closer to his shoulder. Boys like him wore thin at the beginning of high school. You remember going over to their houses and talking in length with their mothers; developing future conditions for them to hammer out on their wives. A high school sweetheart complex, that's all you ever were.
You feel lost for a moment, like the wrong turn was a few turns ago, then the moody streetlamp and stairs leading down to a pit of religious proportions. The bohemians and beatniks have devolved into lesser forms. They're dressed in ragged name brands, making faces after shots, ladies askew at their sides. Some really do believe these statements represent the beginning of a change. You learned to know better a long time ago.
Nelson looks good, ordering a beer like old times. You approach him with a rising smirk impossible to suppress. He's at a loss when you finally embrace and hold on a little longer, just to see how it feels. He buys your first round; you get the next one. Sitting at a center table, no one recognizes the two of you. That's certainly changed. His students would arrive with questions or improper comments, but he only made friends with a few.
You barely mention Dwight or the array of idiots you have to deal with every day at Fresh Fashion. He talks a little too much about his wife, Jean, and then Rita, their two-year-old, flipping past pictures of them on the beach. Everybody's doing fine, and you should come visit sometime. A part of you thinks it's a good idea. A week away from it all would do you good, but Jean isn't your biggest fan, and little kids have always given you spurts of chills up the spine. It'll be different when you have your own, mother says. She drinks too much.
Around midnight, Shelby texts you the next step. Hector's got busted for a noise complaint, but the majority is migrating to Jared's. You know where that is, but worry what Nelson might think. The suggestion comes at the tail end of his beer. Anything else going on tonight? You tell him what to expect, how stupid it'll all be. He humors you and wipes the foam from his beard. Up for whatever and then some. Paying your end, you lead an old friend out the door. He says it's too bad Dwight isn't here with us. You barely react, knowing how unfortunate it would be to validate the professor's passing thought.
You arrive after a few stumbles and stroll into the embrace of unfamiliar arms. Shelby kisses you on the cheek and gives you one of her beers. They all squint at Nelson, the make of his suit, and how those dark circles under his eyes are permanent. Pulled into the basement, he follows you, and everyone gets a hit from some joint. You start to talk again, telling stories of nights with all of the others, of Nelson carrying his guitar through the woods in hopes of stirring the flames. He asks questions about their future prospects. A part of you wishes you had reconsidered grad school. It all seemed like too much paperwork then.
The drinks pass with other lots of conversation. You're drunk enough that it seems appropriate to section Nelson off and get into the real shit. He's on his way out, bumming a front-porch cigarette, pretending like Shakespeare's still here amongst us. You grab his arm, locking in it your own as each step feels important down the wooden steps into the yard. Someone mentions not to drink on the sidewalk, that cops take it as a dead giveaway. You can't believe how accustomed you've grown to these steady constraints.
"So I do have to be heading back," Nelson says. "But it was really great seeing you Ginger. You're still right in the middle of it."
"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"
"Always," he smiles. "Take care, alright?"
Before he can hug you, you stop him. "Why didn't you take me away from all of this?"
"I'm sorry?" He blinks.
"I mean, I was there, too. Here, I mean, but you stopped noticing altogether then, and I still haven't figured out why."
"Ginger, right now I feel like I never taught you anything."
"What does that mean?"
"It means none of us ever expected for you to be the one who outlasted the rest. Sometimes it's okay to swerve, or bail out. Chicken gets old fast."
"This isn't worth my time anymore." You walk away, back onto the porch and inside.
Desperately, you ask if there are any beers left. So many shake their heads, taking the night's final sip. You need a man, but first a drink, and maybe some kind of reassurance. Answering Nelson's phone call was moronic. Shelby and Rianne are gone, off with boys you don't know.
A text comes in from back in McKee's Harbor. It's Harry. He's written too many damn songs about you. You know better than to reply but think about the next time you'll have to see your parents. Their anniversary is coming up. Harry will be around town, ready to show you a good time after dinner that night. He keeps things simple at this hour, just enough sentiment to sting.
Remember when we used to be friends? Oh... Wait... Nevermind. That couldn't have been you. You hate him, but that's only because he actually knows you.
Everything's almost over at Jared's. It's not as easy as it used to be, but the right one eventually gauges your interest. He's skinny with a mouth on him. No style or substance, but cute for the way you're seeing things. You won't have to call him after tonight. He'll tell his friends, and it will eventually get back to Shelby and Rianne, but that doesn't make you think twice.
Soon the semester will be over, and you'll simply sigh, setting the photocopied applications down on the counter at work. The sign in the window has a life expectancy of one week, before everyone's looking for a way to stick around and pay their summertime bills. You haven't thought about a new lease in ages.