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Apr/May 2018 Fiction

Protagonist

by Gian-Paul Bergeron

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter


I'm a retired Protagonist. I do background gigs like Old-Timer Tending The Bar or Smiling Man Who Picks Up Dog Doodie. Sometimes I even get the chance to do Man With Overcoat Strolling In The Serene Fog Of Morning. It's my favorite.

I like being a Peripheral. It's slow. No one pays too much attention to me. I'm not asked to decide anything, to weigh benefits and consequences. I don't have to hurt people I care about or get hurt by them. I don't have to have any realizations, fall in love insanely quickly, or any of that mumbo jumbo. I can just flit in and out of stories. Exist in little discontinuous chunks. I've had my fill of arcs, my fill of character development.

Plus, the money's not half bad. You'd be surprised how much a convincing Overly Cheery Depression-Masking Middle Manager goes for these days.

I like hanging out in the background. I like having to be only one or two things at a time, some surface level traits, a few characteristics. Long Nose And A Stern Mouth, Friendly Eyes And Arthritic Hands, A Gruff Voice That Tells Of Loss. These things are simple. These things are uni-dimensional. These things are short and sweet, and that's fine by me.

Now, I can accidentally wear mismatched socks without it being some kind of character trait signifying my oddness. An oddness which will metastasize into a gorgeous-but-quirky love interest, quirky meaning Zooey Deschanel, meaning that whomever I fall in love with will look like Zooey Deschanel, and laugh like Zooey Deschanel, and play the ukulele like Zooey Deschanel, and break my heart like Zooey Deschanel, because these stories have such limited imagination that any guy with mismatched socks must want Zooey Deschanel and her white, white skin and her arranged clumsiness. Well, guess what? After you've been matched with seventeen Zooey Deschanel's, she just doesn't make it happen anymore, and maybe she never made it happen at all and it was just that extracorporeal desire again, flooding your body and making you think, "She might be the One for you, the One you've been waiting for, the One who will make your relentless Protagonism worth it," and guess what, she doesn't, and guess what, she still breaks your heart every time.

It always turned out that the story was about me. Me being selfish and overcoming that. Me having some kind of epiphany that made me get a grip on my life and succeed. Me progressively maturing. Even if I ended up happy, it was ultimately about me, me, me. It wasn't ever about Zooey Deschanel or our love. It always was about how I caused it to fail, or masked my hurt too much, or wasn't caring and compassionate enough. Because any decision I made, any decision I was pushed to make, seemed to drive her away from me, or me away from her, and even though I never really wanted to be with her in the first place, there I would be at the end of the story, feeling estranged, having to do that end of the story thing where you dip a toe into the possibility of what extends beyond the story, the implied extrapolation. But over time I began to fake that ending, fake that hope. There is no endearing, optimistic coda.

I dislike Zooey Deschanel very freaking much.

It's not like that anymore. Now, I can decide something to do without being worried about how it will affect my Narrative Arc, my Love Interest, my Family. I don't have to balance these competing desires to create intriguing drama, to create conflict. I don't have to worry about achieving an ambitious Want. My only Want is to be left alone, to make decisions for myself that aren't about My Story, that aren't about me being the center of attention.

Anyways, my life is mostly good now. One of my favorite roles is Grumbling But Passionate Librarian because I get to maintain the silence of the room. I get to keep everything still. I get to sit and think and think and think and not have to come to any conclusion. I can think just for the sake of thinking or not think just for the sake of not thinking.

However, invariably, I think about how the world would change if all the cartographers got avian flu or some similar, intensely specific idea I know is nauseously quirky, and I hate how my internal monologue, my thoughts, have been tainted by all the stories I've been in, but also I earnestly want to know the answers to my wonderings. But then I wonder why wondering about the possibilities of the world is always "quirky," which in turn is its own kind of quirky thought.

Enough of that.

 

We Peripherals live at the edge of storyspace. There's lots of scenery fragments just floating around, ready to be slotted into a cookie-cutter narrative. Sometimes these bits and pieces gravitate towards each other and become locked together, so we see some pretty kooky things. A swamp with a cotton candy concession stand smack dab in the middle. A tract of model homes completely overrun by stray seeing-eye dogs. An asteroid covered in wheat and every brand of tractor (John Deere, International, etc.), all orbiting a very demure sperm whale. These things aren't "quirky" because nobody is getting laid (or trying to) because of them.

The scenes make for good tidbits to share at the bar, assuming you see something new, which happens often enough that its dependable, like knowing there's always going to be another story needing some bozo to stand around in the background.

On Tuesday nights, we drink old-fashioneds and super duper fancy cocktails, and it's all free because the bartender of course is also a Peripheral (an Old-Timer like me). We talk about how idiotic the Protagonists are, how overwrought, how self-centered. But underneath all these jabs and laughs, there's an overwhelming sense of jealousy. That, if they were given the chance, they could do better. Well, guess what, I had the chance, and I did a pretty lousy job. Though I'm not quite sure exactly how I always bungled it up. Being on the edge of storyspace makes your memory kind of hazy. Stories mix, and it becomes hard to remember what happened to you. You just remember how it feels. You can't distinguish between the Zooey Deschanels.

Most Peripherals never had the chance to be Protagonists, so I don't mention my old job much. I made that mistake when I first retired, and they would all make jokes or pretend to not be interested, but individually, at the end of the night, some would come up to me, giddy at the thought of knowing a Protagonist. And they would ask these non-stop questions: "What does the Inciting Incident feel like? What does it feel like to fall into a story and not be able to stop, to be driven down a path you can't escape? Is it like a roller coaster? Is it like the big drop of a roller coaster? I'd like to imagine it's like a roller coaster. I think it's probably most like a roller coaster with many ups and downs, and your body lurches, and your brain can't help but focus on the fact that you are hurtling towards death, to the end of your story, and you throw up, and your mother is calling you, but you can't answer your phone and you can't get out of your seat, so you have to wait to the end, and in the end it's like everything and nothing has changed. It's just like that, huh? Ya, it's probably just like that." They always ended up answering their own questions. But I didn't like the attention, so I tried to keep the whole thing under wraps.

Every couple of Tuesday nights, there is some Young Badboy Dude who is bragging how he's about to get hooked up with a Protagonist gig. I roll my eyes. He's clearly missed the boat. Thirty years ago his type was prime real estate. Not anymore. Young Badboy Dudes are out of style. He's got to try to make himself Sensitive Outcast Guy or even Nerd with Sexual Fantasies. Or be someone else entirely. Someone with an identity that isn't so Boring and White. All the retired guys are Old and White. I am Old and White. Get us out of the spotlight.

Needless to say that for a long time there have been a lot of Peripherals of color. Needless to say they used to only get roles like Hardworking Mexican Troweling Mrs. Thatcher's Garden or Industrious Asian Boy Who Always Tattles On Bobby Who Is Just Trying His Darndest To Pass The Class.

Sometimes they'll still cast me as a non-white Peripheral. I'm pretty tan, so I'll play Old, Helpful Latino Cashier Who Sparks The Protagonist's Prolonged Reflection On What It Means To Be An American And How There Is Enough Room For All Different Sorts Of People Because Of How Old And Helpful This Latino Cashier Is. I always feel weird about playing that kind of role, of course.

It's improving though. A bunch of POC are getting picked up as Protagonists in stories that are much better than ones I was ever in. Much more complex, with new ideas that aren't Feel Bad For The Unfulfilled White Dude Who's Realizing His Systematic Advantage Is Slowly Being Eroded. But anytime anyone becomes a Protagonist, I feel a small sadness for them.

Protagonism isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's this awful mix between having no agency and too much. You have to carry out all the actions in the story, but also you have to get into the mindset of the character and convince yourself you are exerting free will. You have to convince yourself that what you are doing matters, even though it clearly doesn't.

But, not so often yet not never, Peripherals do become Protagonists. They take their chances. Some of them write me: how dramatic their inner monologues, how nuanced their conflicts! And I remember that feeling.

I don't miss it. Sitting around with a bunch of nobodies in a nobody bar in the middle of nowhere, the tightness in my chest loosens just a little bit.

 

I change the tire of Nice Protagonist Woman In Her 30s About To Be Swept Off Her Feet By Sexy, But Poor Lover (me being Knowledgeable 4th Generation Italian-American Mechanic, giving her all sorts of DIY advice). While I'm under the car getting all greasy, I see (upside down) this almost-recognizable old woman roll by on a rusty cruiser. I notice her Bushy Eyebrows. Strong character trait, high in Individuality, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The Nice Protagonist answers the phone and drones on to her mother about her stale love life.

Another day, another story. I'm being Old Senile Man Who Makes The Protagonist Think Of His Own Dying Mother Whom He Hasn't Visited in Three Years, minding my own business, waiting for the Morally Conflicted Protagonist to stumble out of view so I can leave, when the same old woman, someone I know but can't quite place where from, sits down on the bench opposite mine and begins to sing.

Only it's not sweet, serene singing. It's a crackly old person kind of chanting, and she's stomping her feet and grinning, and it's just an absolutely absurd sight. I start laughing, which disturbs my Protagonist, because he thinks I'm laughing at him, which feeds his Depressive Thoughts, tinging the rest of his story with a Self-Hating Melancholy, which is a big no-no. The old lady gives me a Kooky Grin. I cast her as Maude in my head. Maude being a kind of old-person-version of Zooey Deschanel (yet again). She must get that a lot. And she leaves.

(I feel the familiar feeling of being pulled. I know there is a middle emerging from my constant beginnings. I can feel this old lady drawing me slowly into a story. A story I don't want to be in.)

I'm cataloging weapons at the police station, doing a Friendly But Weathered Slightly Racially Insensitive Good 'Ol Guy From A Past Generation That All The Young Guys Like Because He Says The Things They Think Deep Down, when she comes in like a normal police officer wearing full uniform, but clearly she's a 70-year-old woman—not that a 70-year-old woman can't be a cop, of course, but all the other Peripherals are like 25 years old—and I'm thinking to myself, who hired her for this role, that doesn't make any sense, she sticks out too much, and then the Protagonist heaves a deep sigh and hands me his service pistol (an end of second act: he's been discharged from the force, which was the only thing keeping him from becoming a gang member, and plus his girlfriend just broke up with him because she thinks he's defending the corrupt police force when really he's a revolutionary, God-fearing mole).

After that solemn moment, this old lady struts up to my desk, looks at me directly in the eyes and says, "Charlie, come on, let's go." Which was not laid out in the Story Blueprint and is completely out of character. Namely, my character's name is Wade, not Charlie, Charlie being the name I was called as an off-duty Protagonist. This kind of interaction directly contradicts Peripheral Pillar Three: this is not your story, don't make it about you or any other Peripheral unless you get bumped up to Minor Character, in which case you can fraternize with other Minor Characters, but only to fill in the world, to make it feel more real. So, I try to stay in character and say, "Miss, the work day isn't over, and unless you have something for me, I suggest you move your sweet tukus along," channeling my Slight Insensitivity.

Then she gives me a dense stare, one packed tightly with meaning. It's an absurdly precise look. I have seen thousands of looks, from thousands of people in thousands of stories, and so I've come to be a kinda sorta expert. This is what her look says, approximately: I know you. You know me. Stop fooling around. This is serious. I've been looking for you, and where the freak have you been? Dilly dallying with being some kind of freaking nobody, huh? Only it's still all about you. Who do you think you are?

And I can see the other Peripherals get uncomfortable with how long she's been staring at me. Which is quite a while because there was a lot of info in that stare. And I'm clenching my teeth, standing in place. Because I know this feeling too well. This is an Inciting Incident. This is going to launch me into a story I desperately don't want to be in. I know her very intensely, but I don't want to know how and why. I have buried it deep. Freak this!

Her hands are all knobby and swollen like classic Old Person hands. She extends them to me. I'm no longer Good 'Ol Guy. Now I am simply Person. And I (unwillingly?) bring my equally knobby, equally swollen, equally Old Person hands toward hers. And just before we touch, I remember why I recognize her. She's my wife.

 

Why the freak did Marcy come get me? Our gloves are clasped together tightly, but I can't feel her fingers. I breathe as lightly as I can, watch my oxygen levels trickle down. Three percent.

I was always shit at Doomed Astronaut. I sit and look at Marcy who is doing More Competent Astronaut Love Interest, inputting commands to the mainframe, trying to close a gate, trying to seal off the damaged section of our spacecraft. There is nothing I can do to help. I've been here before. With Marcy. In this exact spot. Being all Protagonisty in a story that is supposed to matter. I know what happens next. There is nothing I can do except say the line I am supposed to say. This is one of those story-moments that has no room for improv. This line drives the plot. This line moves us forward. But I don't want to say that freaking line, because the second I say that line, it's over. The spaceship will go Kaboom, and Marcy will pull me into some other story, into some other mind where I have to make another freaking decision. Or at least act like it. I want to warp the storyline, but there's not enough time.

One percent. Shit. Marcy says her line, a whimsical one, asking about what kind of toy I will buy for my son when I get home, which of course, will never happen. I try to do a Kind Laugh, but I'm not so good at kindness right now, so it comes out more like a Cynical Laugh, which fits the character okay, I guess. Marcy looks at me and waits. Waits for me to say the line. She gives me the look that says, "Charles, say your—Oh freak this, okay, I'll say the line, Jesus."

"Umm... If we're going to die here, I just want you to know that I love you. I've always loved you. And I didn't know how to show it, but it's true."

I try to show her with my eyes that I'd gag if I could, if I could do anything besides what I did, years ago when this was our Active Story. Hers eyes say, "Gag away, I've already thrown up." We involuntarily reach out our hands, and Kaboom.

 

Kaboom behind us, and I pant, sprinting away. Marcy runs beside me, across the arid desert floor. In this memory, we are young and lean, our muscles exquisitely toned. We have skin-tight black outfits with all sorts of straps and belts and gadgets. We always made good Spies In Love. I don't need to say I've been here before. Of course I have.

I give her the look that says, Hurry up already, get us to a looser story, a place we can talk, so you can tell me why the heck you are making me come with you. She responds with a, Duh, Idiot.

Every story ever told is happening somewhere, somewhen. The hundreds of stories Marcy and I shared together. But you can't just choose to go to one and all the sudden appear there. You have to hop through linking actions. And you've got to hold both experiences in your mind, as if they're equally real, as if you could be in either reality. And then, poof, you are. I used to be really great at it. I used to be great at considering dozens of factors simultaneously. Discerning the best decision out of them all. Looking at two seemingly equal realities and choosing the better one. Only it kept turning out there was no better one. Both were equally crap.

We run away from a huge explosion of some unethical bioengineering plant toward our no-doors Jeep, and we swing our bodies in, landing on the sizzling hot leather seats, and Marcy starts the car.

 

Marcy starts the car. We're sixteen, and we're sitting in a VW bug on a summer night. I touch my face and feel small beginnings of hair on my never-shaven chin. Marcy is beautiful, of course. We're in high school, and she's The Girl Next Door. The way this one goes is that I'm a Sexually Frustrated But Endearing Nerd, and even though she's a Cool Girl, she treats me like a human and we take drives late at night, and eventually we kiss. It's pure euphoria.

Then I learn she's not a virgin from kids at school, and I call her a slut and distance myself from her, and I regret it, but it doesn't matter if I regret it because I hurt her really deeply. It's not a happy story, but it's the way it has to go. It's the way it went. And ultimately, its about me and how I messed up. That's not self-pity, that's just true.

But right now, we are in the moment just before our first kiss. The one of peak focus, absorption. And I try to savor it.

We crossed paths years later in a horror story in our late-20s (we didn't stay in touch), when I played Timid Train Conductor who noticed funny sounds in one of the cars, and she was a Put-Together Journalist who lived all the way through, and I, having been paired with so many Zooey Deschanel's, remembered our first kiss and was so happy we had found each other again and that Marcy was real and competent and better than me (and I liked that she was still a little bit Zooey Deschanel-ish in that she was beautiful and spontaneous). And so, as I had my eyes gouged out by the Crazed Surgeon who had been running freaky science experiments in a boarded-up car, I thought of Marcy and of how we hopefully would get to be Protagonists together again, and maybe even buy our own piece of storyspace, a narrative where anything could happen, and it could be just the two of us and our imaginations, where we could go after a long day's work and be whomever we wanted to be.

And we got that, in time. And all the stories about couples we signed up for. We went everywhere and everywhen together. Got to be whomever we liked. And this all sounds very cute and romantic and dramatic, and I guess it sorta was, but it just stopped working. Or it never worked, and we still kept trying to make it work. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we both wanted a story that mattered so badly, one of our own. So we made one together and lived it.

But we're not there right now. I tend to get lost in other worlds, other spaces. I'm in a car with Marcy now, and I'm about to have my first kiss.

I lean in, my braces protruding off my teeth. Before I close my eyes, I see something in hers, and for a moment, we are just Nerdy Virgin Nice Guy and Girl Next Door.

I close my eyes.

And then I know we are not. We are not the people we are pretending to be.

And I say, "I don't think I can do this."

And she says, "Oh, just kiss me already."

And I say, "Do you want to kiss me? Really?"

And she says, "Of course I do."

And even though these are the same words we said the first time, when it was our Active Story, it feels so goofed up. I am no longer protesting due to my character's Shy Self-Doubt. We aren't living our roles the way we did then.

It's clear. She just wants to get it over with. I don't believe she's Girl Next Door at all, because Girl Next Door wants to finally be in love with a Nice Guy, which my guy is, and so she doesn't want to get it over with at all, she wants to linger in the moment, to soak it up. But that's not what Marcy's doing.

She pulls me in by my NASA Space Camp shirt, and we kiss.

 

We kiss. Marcy leans back up, standing beside my hospital bed. It wasn't a loving kiss. I wheeze, playing Old Geezer With Prostate Cancer Who's Looking Back At His Life With Regret. This is one of those unstructured story moments. A place when there's a little time/space for agency, as long as it's in the context of Dying Cancer Geezer and Estranged Wife, which most things I want to say are. Not sure about Marcy.

I can't remember if this one is a memory or not. Maybe a future. Maybe some alternate story. Some one where we stayed together. Some one where, before I die, we have a conversation and try to figure out where it all went wrong.

"Where did it all go wrong?" I ask Marcy, as genuinely as I can.

She sits with my question. I can see her inhale through her nose and digest it, her stomach acid getting all chummy with the question, and I realize it was a sort of dumb, if earnest, thing to ask. She drinks a bit of water from a paper cup.

She starts, "It never went wrong."

I hate when she stresses words like that. It sounds so condescending.

"There wasn't a singular moment when it started veering toward wrong. That this—" she points to herself, she points to me, her arthritic finger wobbling slightly, "—suddenly went wrong."

I cough up a little phlegm. It's yellow and goopy and soaks into my paper gown. I hate the habit of noticing these tiny details. I don't want to help fill out the story anymore.

"You asked the wrong question," she tells me.

I want to say something more specific, ask her about what's really going on here and quit talking in abstractions, but that would break the conceit, the whole Wheezing Old Geezer and Estranged Wife thing. Plus, it might not even help. So I ask another pointed yet vague question.

"How'd we get here?" meaning "here" in every way the word can contain.

Marcy sighs, "You brought us," which makes my hairs stand up like a freaking porcupine because no, I didn't. She brought us here. I left. I retired. I quit. I ran away, and she found me.

"Why couldn't you just let me be? I didn't ask you to come." Sputtering, trying not to die, not just yet.

The room beeps and hums.

"Do you think I had a freakin' choice? I didn't want to look for you, but our life's always been about you."

I groan. What the freak? I am dying. I can feel it.

"Why is it always about me?" escapes my throat.

"Because who am I?" she whisper-shouts a few inches away from my face. She reflexively flattens a cowlick on my head, and is annoyed with herself for the gesture.

"You're my wife?"

"Exactly. My."

And I die.

 

I, Successful But Paranoid Wall Street Number Cruncher, walk into an open manhole and fall to my death.

 

I, Hokey King of Dad-Joke Suburban Dad, am killed in a freak car accident leaving my whole family (especially my Dutiful Wife) to mourn my Dadness.

 

I, having been shot in the chest with an AR-15 by Gay-Bashed Nerdy High School Kid, bleed to death in the arms of my Cheerleader High School Sweetheart, who weeps for my poor, innocent soul. Marcy really sells the whole thing, bawling her eyes out, with me, Douchebag Closeted Jock, acting like a Class A victim. She whispers to me sweet nothings. Or at least she is supposed to. Instead she says, tickling my ear with her breath, "This is our story, not yours. I want my part back." And I die.

The fun thing about this story is that there's an afterlife, and it becomes a kind of buddy comedy in purgatory with me and Geeky Feminine School Shooter, where we struggle but ultimately succeed in overcoming our differences.

So, finally, I get away from Marcy, and I'm hanging out with School Shooter drawing up our big plan about how we're gonna break into heaven and show all those goodie goodies what real conflicted humans look like, when Marcy poofs into purgatory, having killed herself to be with me. And I can see that she's mad she literally had to kill herself to follow my story (oh, God, I'm emphasizing like she does).

But I don't write the stories, that's what I want to tell her, that she didn't have to kill herself for me, even though I know she did, that's the story, that's the story arc. Even if you think you are straying from it, you are really following it, to a tee.

And seeing her standing there all half-dead, surrounded by the amorphous gray gloops of purgatory, looking so obviously like she was dragged here against her will, I've never wanted to run away more. I've never wanted to be less of a Protagonist. I've never wanted to just let her do whatever the freak she wants to do, whatever that is, I don't know.

"I give up," I say, giving up. School Shooter looks at me like, What the freak's going on, my dude? bugging out his little dweeby mind, and Marcy walks directly up to me and pinches me on the arm, hard.

 

I recoil. We sit on our couch in our little nook of storyspace. Our world of two. The one where we aren't puppets (theoretically). The one where we can be (theoretical) us.

We are our actual ages again, which is approximately Crusty and Old.

She pours herself some lemonade. The frozen kind from the Minute Maid can. Extra sugary.

"Let's not fight anymore," she says, lowering the glass from her lips.

"Okay," I say.

She crunches an ice cube and spits it back into the glass.

"This story is boring. The one where it's always from your perspective."

I don't know how to respond to that.

"Exactly. Our story is always about your reactions. How you respond to things. Not the things themselves. Or the people."

"How do I—"

She interrupts me, and takes my hands, and looks at me squarely: "Charles, I love you. But the only way I've ever been allowed to exist is as your Love Interest. Or now, as your Antagonist, the one who is stopping you from getting what you want. I just want to be Person. I just want to be me, you know?"

I do. I know. And I don't know. I'm tired of this dynamic. I want to be Me, too. I know it's different, but I just feel this way. I'm talking to myself again, oh freak, I am talking to myself. I feel like I know what she's going to say. It feels like Marcy is Me and I am Marcy. She really is just an extension of me. An extension of my self-hate—oh, God, freak me for thinking this: it's exactly what she is saying. Freak me for knowing what the issue is but feeling like I can't help it. Freak me for being part of her story at all.

She pauses so I can think. Then she says, "Is that too much to ask?"

I say, "No, no, no no. Not in the least."

And we sit in silence.

And I feel the white noise feeling before tears, the one people call "stinging" but really is just the welling up, the on-the-cusp feeling of the edge of emotion, which doesn't physically sting, but we know we are hurting, and so, yes, why don't we just say it stings? I feel that. But I don't want to cry because I don't want her to feel like she has to take care of me because she doesn't, or shouldn't, because clearly she's hurting, too, which makes me so sad, so now I really feel the tears coming, here they go, and I feel her hand on my back. Oh, freak, I did it again.

I choke out, "Marcy, where has the time gone? We're old. Where is the love we are supposed to have when we are old? The kind of Neverending Love in Old People Stories?"

Our living room walls are filled with pictures of us, from all our adventures. I see my stupid, smiling face everywhere.

"I don't know. I don't know," she says.

So here we are. Two people who pledged our lives to each other, not knowing what to say because it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough to want to do our best. It wasn't enough to want to make it work. This feels so melodramatic, and maybe it is.

Maybe out of all the stories we could have had, we ended up choosing the one with the most conflict. After all, it's what we knew best.

Marcy puts her hands on our glass coffee table. After a long while, she says, "Let's do another story. One last one."

I say, "Okay."

And she says, "I'd really love it if you were Supporting Character. If for once, you were Love Interest and I was Protagonist."

Normally I'd say that was unfair, that she was accusing me of being someone I'm not, making me responsible for things out of my control. I don't do that, though. Instead I say, "Okay."

 

She flies off the top of the tower, her cape flapping in the wind. I dangle from her hand, holding on for dear life. She's doing Best Of The Best Superhero and I'm doing Incompetent Sidekick Love Interest. There are bad guys a few dozen blocks away. We're gonna go beat the crud out of them. Likely Marcy will do most of the crud beating, and I'll do some diversions. She is superb at crud-beating. I love Marcy. She is the best.

Marcy smiles at me—no, um, Marcy looks valiantly ahead and mentally plans the fight.

Her colors are green and gold. She has like all the powers in the book and some that aren't. Flight, Superstrength, X-Ray Vision, Laser Elbows, Radical Empathy.

We get to the fight, and she does some fighting, and I do some diversion stuff. It's pretty unexciting. At least for me. (I'm sorry, Marcy, I'm trying, I'll do better.)

She flies us back to the hideout, and we eat kettle corn and play the tuba. We do this every night. We are superheroes who eat kettle corn and play the tuba for fun. Sorry, we aren't superheroes. She's a superhero, I'm just a sidekick. (Marcy, I swear, I got this.)

Marcy boots up the super massive computer to look up the lyrics to a song that is on the tip of both of our tongues. I'm rolling on the ground, dirtying up my costume, laughing like a supreme loon at how much fun I'm having, about how much I am enjoying this story (is this good?) about how much I enjoy Marcy's company (is this what you want?) about how I can play tuba in a room with my best friend and lover and still feel so alone.

 

I'm alone eating dinner with Marcy. It's our 20th anniversary. I made honey glazed carrots, and they aren't soft enough.

 

I'm alone at the Peripheral bar, watching people come in and out, thinking in the way back of my head about Marcy, and how I miss her, and how I wish things could be easier. How I wish I could not be me. Or at least, I wish I could be a better me, one who doesn't boil things down to super simple over-arching explanations (i.e. I am the problem, and I can't fix me; I've tried).

 

I'm alone in a crowded coffee shop being Guy Who Doesn't Quite Know The Differences Between The Varieties Of Coffee Drinks And Wants To Try Something New That Might Make Him Feel A Little Bit Sophisticated Or Happy Or Worthwhile. I hold up the line, too nervous to ask the barista exactly what the difference between a latte and cappuccino is, which is just the final straw for the Disgruntled Protagonist Who Is Praying She Won't Get A Low MCAT Score Which Would Devastate Her Heart Surgeon Uncle Who Is Like A Father To Her. I quickly choose and pay for my cortado, whatever that is.

I wait. I surprise myself. I'm actually a bit excited to try it. I twiddle one of those green garden-stake-looking things for plugging up drink lids. I try to do that poker chip thing that Villainous Millionaires do. I fail instantly. I think about picking my teeth with it and look around to see if anyone is looking at me. They aren't. Even though I'm a Peripheral again, the tightness in my chest doesn't loosen.

I look behind the counter to see how my drink is coming.

And that's when I see Marcy.

Her muscles are relaxed. She sits on a stool humming to herself with headphones in, typing an email on her computer. She is breathing full breaths. She's being something like Relaxed Protagonist Soon To Find Out Their World Is Ending, or Unsuspecting Love Interest Who Is About To Meet The Love Of Her Life, or Content Patron Who Signifies That This Coffee Shop Is A Fine Establishment Where The Protagonist Might Like To Work On Their Novel. But somehow she's also none of these things. She isn't anybody in relationship to anyone else. She can't be capitalized. She doesn't seem like the same person who was Cheerleader, Girl Next Door, Estranged Wife. And I realize that the Marcy I know, the one that I loved, the one in my story, isn't the same as this Marcy. This one exists outside of me, and always did.

 

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