George Herbers is a lifelong reader, a devoted writer, and a practicing artist based in Edmonton, Alberta. Currently a student studying English and Creative Writing, he is aspiring to further representation in the literary arts.
A Reason to Love
The clouds were pure and white, bright and almost shining, with the afternoon sun soaking into every crevasse and highlighting every curve on top their gently shifting forms. Dustin cast his eyes out over the clean horizon, deceived by the look of an attractive blue sky as the plane skirted the seamless cotton-ball field, something which, in itself, caused and concealed a more overcast, sun-filtered day below. The plane was headed to Vancouver, the city in which he was raised. It was a work trip, and while he was idly staring out the window, he exercised his imagination with who he might greet, how he would assess the inefficiencies he was tasked with, and the fantasy of how he would be received. He considered himself a professional ambassador, and over the years it had become a habit of his to visualize his own bearing and charm. But it would be unfair to think that this vanity was uncalled for or to his detriment. No, it only helped to manifest the confidence necessary to inspire trust in a client. He was a man who was always preparing to make a strong impression, or at least what he considered a strong impression, insomuch as, through every aspect of his work and civil relationships, it was a point of pride. He was a man of assuring smiles and firm handshakes, and he had always felt himself to be well suited to his work. His procedural greetings were a source of comfort and personal affirmation for him, and on many occasions, he found he even preferred the playful back-and-forth he would provoke at first blush to the relaxed familiarity he received from his friends and family. He hadn’t been home in almost two years and felt obligated to stay a few more days than his trip demanded so he could visit his parents. It was a commitment he considered mildly, not for any overt displeasure he expected in seeing them, but simply out of a stressful preoccupation in his thoughts, which were anywhere but home. He was at once tired and restless, incessantly and rhythmically tapping his forefinger on the armrest, but the flight was approaching its predicted time of arrival, and knowing this, he did his best to distract himself and suppress some of his more persistent worries. For a small while he considered how his night would unravel. He needed to be on client site and present for a meeting early in the morning, but after the flight his day was unscheduled. For that reason, before departing, he had made plans to have dinner with a long absent friend in the city. He had received a message from his erstwhile companion, a man by the name Joel Kazowitz, months prior. In it, he had asked if Dustin would be returning to Vancouver over the winter holidays and suggested that, if he was, they ought to make some time to see each other. Dustin responded that he wasn’t planning on going anywhere through the holidays, but Joel's request remained in his mind, arousing some rowdy and fondly held memories, so a few days before his trip, he messaged Joel and asked if he was still interested in meeting up, to which he replied he was. At first, Dustin was surprised to hear from his friend. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and considering the time that had passed, he had expected they might never see each other again. They had been friends since high school and illicit partners in their tumultuous years of early adulthood. At that more restless age, Dustin would often go to watch Joel perform in a jazz quartet, or quintet or trio or with however many musicians were at hand, at a popular bar on Beatty street, after which they would share drinks and prime themselves to let the night take them wherever it might. Such reflections lured him into the past, swathing him comfortably, but it was short lived. His future always robbed him of whatever semblance of peace he would find. As he skimmed over the antics of his younger self, he also suffered, and struggled to ignore, the sharp, nagging worry which, over an unending period of time, he found he could never fully escape. He was compulsively reminded that what loomed ahead of him, after his dinner plans, after his professional obligations, after his parents, and after his return flight, was a painful state of affairs which were predicated on the decay of an altogether different friendship, that which he had with his wife. Their marriage had just reached its fourth anniversary, and it seemed to Dustin that whatever animosity had now come between them had, actually, been a long time coming. The backdrop to his growing trepidation was a home life of increasing silence, punctuated only by moments of either detached, uninterested remarks between them, or outbursts of anger and verbal attacks from his wife. You think I want to be here? It doesn’t even register— what I gave up to come out here. And now? What? It’s like I’m a fucking house plant! You can’t even look at me when I’m talking to you! You think I like living like this? You’re really not as smart as you think you are Dustin. I know what you’re thinking. This is a problem coming from me. Like you can judge me? Well, what about you? You can just sit there. Imagining it, he could feel the shrill pitch of her words, like an untuned string section, pry at his nerves and move down his spine. It had been a great while since he assumed to have any understanding of her, her anger, or what she wanted from him, and he could often only respond to her aggressions with a stony look and an exasperated disdain. He had come to find only discomfort in her presence and believed that she must have experienced something similar, but she, in rebellion of a quiet, stifling end, reacted emotionally and with redundant accusations. The plane began to dip. The light from the window turned gray, and the city came into view. He saw the downtown thicket, what would otherwise be the skyline, the blue mote, and everything else that sprawled out around it. For whatever reason, fate had always conspired to keep him from having a window seat while flying back home, so, with curiosity, he took the opportunity to scan the ground in search of once intimate territory, and although it was difficult to make out, he managed to locate the neighborhood where he had grown up just a short distance into the mainland. He thought he would find some sense of nostalgia looking down at those cramped townhouses, all comfy brown with that knee scarring, rocky, and old pavement weaving in and about them, but he felt only a vague disappointment. He reasoned that this was a product of the alien perspective he had in flight, and that he would probably only feel sentimental if he was immersed in the place itself. Looking away from the city, he turned his attention to something which he knew he would recognize warmly: The North Shore Mountains. They were a ways off in the distance and a little obscured in the hazy light, but he could still discern their craggy silhouette. Those enclosing figures, raised on two sides, absent on one and then again on the shore, had always comforted him, as if they were there to stand guard for the city. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say he regarded them with a certain kind of respect. A kind of admiration for their unflinching stoicism. The plane touched down on the runway and slowed to a halt, and an announcement signaled passengers to disembark. Dustin collected his things and got up to leave, but for a moment he was stuck in queue behind an old man who wrestled to dislodge his carry-on from the overhead. He felt his patience being strained, standing still and looking down at his feet, imagining wriggling and pushing his way past the struggling senior. The man turned to him and apologized. Dustin smiled at him politely. “Nothing to apologize for.” Once he was out on the floor of the airport terminal, he took the opportunity to stretch and yawn himself alive. He thought to himself that he would like to lay down for a little while before he went to meet up with Joel. It was only four, and he had a few hours to kill. He gathered his luggage and carried it outside to where he found a single, expectant brown and white taxi, stalking tired, jet-lagged travelers like a vulture that had missed the wake. On the way to his hotel, Dustin watched familiar places go by. He noticed his driver taking a needlessly circuitous route, but he didn’t care. He was sleepy and full of memories that were fractured but consciously edited together in a dreamy montage. Before he got married, and before he left the city to accept a job offer in America, he led an untamed social life, and he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the bulk of those people he once called friends. Most of them no longer used social media, and those who did treated it as nothing more than a platform to share their globe-trotting pictures, like they were personal accomplishments, or to announce their engagements and pregnancies, their common purposes and lifelong turmoil. The thought of Joel’s message stirred up wistful feelings in him. The taxi drove him past the university and past the nearby reserved housing with the peeled back paint, unkempt lawns, and interspersed fraternity crest writing. He began to slip into a recollection of all the sweaty, drunken nights, and then the throbbing mornings which he endured with strict composure. Those pains seemed quaint to him now that he was more familiar with life's steep difficulty curve, which to him, so far, looked to be a steady march from a child kicking at pebbles to poor Sisyphus. It was there, somewhere, where he had met his wife. He couldn’t remember fully how the night went, but it was certainly a party and he was certainly pissed. At the tail end of the night, he found her sitting on his lap, shifting around with suggestive friction, and staring into his eyes with immense heat and anticipation. Their relationship continued on as it started that night: deeply sexual. Over the course of a few months, they enjoyed themselves in a manner that developed their romantic feelings much too fast for any strong, interpersonal roots to take hold. Fortunately, once the passion had consumed itself, Dustin was still happy to have her in his company. She was an exceptionally beautiful woman in many regards and for that reason alone he could respect her. She, in turn, seemed to appreciate his brusque manner and social presence. They remained an affectionate couple for a year before Dustin felt compelled to tie the knot, and through all that time he was content. After his proposal, he remained optimistic and prepared to enter a new phase in his life, as he felt it was the proper time for him to do so. An hour before it came time to meet with Joel, Dustin had to rouse himself from his queen-sized hotel bed and an unsatisfying nap. He sat for a few minutes with a dull ache in his head, and when he was feeling cogent, he ordered another taxi to the hotel front. He had the driver take him to the downtown area where Joel had chosen a place for them to meet, but as they approached their destination, the driver, a heavy and hairy man with a husky accent, asked him if it was alright to drop him off a block away from their destination so he could avoid getting caught up in a backed up lane where traffic was stalled. Dustin told him it was fine. He paid the man, giving him a generous tip, and climbed out of the car. He was familiar with the area and knew the restaurant Joel had picked by reputation. Back in their younger days, the two would sometimes pretend to be gourmets, and they sampled many extravagant places in the city despite the often-times steep cost. He took a deep breath and started briskly towards where he remembered the place being. The restaurant was at the base of four towers which converged on a four-way intersection. Their undefined shadows, hunched over from the west, kept him from whatever vestigial glow of sunlight that managed to seep through the clouds. He had passed by the place many times before and spotted it quickly across the street from where he was, first recognizing the dark and tinted windows. He had always felt comfortable in the mid-city, a place he thought was mostly the same as any other metropolitan district in every other city he had been to. A place that mixed with savvy, dressed pedestrians, decisive professionals, and cramped traffic that left the streets constipated, with chic cafes and other small shops crowded together to fill in the gaps. In his mind, there wasn’t much that was unique to Vancouver apart from the gratuitous number of cyclists. Of course, there was also the homeless population, which was much larger than what was found in other cities of the same size. Those unfortunates had always inspired his contempt. Only a few feet away from him as approached the intersection was a slouched over man in washed out layers, seemingly unconscious, and as he passed him, Dustin caught the familiar stench of body odor, alcohol, and urine that was typical of the down and out. The sight of him brought to mind a habitual platitude that his father was fond of. The man had a stance on panhandlers that he felt he needed to champion whenever the topic of the homeless came up. It was something he considered to be indicative of considerable virtue, and something Dustin heard many times through his childhood. Whenever he had the opportunity, he would proclaim that if he met a man with an empty stomach, he would gladly take that man out and buy a meal for him, but he would never give his money to a bagger whose actions he could not follow, as he could never be sure that his money would be spent on something he approved of. Thinking about it, Dustin scowled. He was not sympathetic enough or, in his mind, fool enough to even match his fathers half-hearted posturing. Standing at the intersection, he saw around the corner another pair of shabby looking people holding up a cardboard sign. One of the baggers turned to look at him with plasticine features and Dustin found himself locking eyes. His face reflexively took on a sneering expression. They examined each other for a moment before he turned away dismissively, and when the lights changed, he crossed the street with confidence and approached the restaurant. He expected the place to be lavish, but once inside, his expectations were nonetheless humbled. The light was soft and flattering. The tablecloths draped across the tables looked impressive, with intricately stitched edges and dimensional patterns on their bodies, and the chairs surrounding each table were smart with black leather cushioning and copper looking legs. In the center of the room hung an elaborately winding and twisting chandelier with many crystalline bulbs dangling from its limbs like hesitant drops of water, something which he found particularly eye catching. Everything was angular and measured, from the patterned scheme of blacks, whites, and golds, to the polished, glistening bar top, it all ran together into an elegant, contemporary pastiche of atmosphere and finery. Even the air itself felt clean and crisp. The place dazzled and had him questioning if he had ever truly known such luxurious aesthetics before, as, although he thought himself somewhat cultured, it wasn’t until that moment that he, for the first time in his life, felt himself somewhat of an intruder in such a setting. A hostess approached him and he told her he needed seating for two. She asked him if he wanted a booth, as patrons were sparse, and he told her a booth would be nice. She led him to a half-circle with a circle table and asked if he wanted anything before his company arrived. He told her he didn’t. Dustin was waiting no more than fifteen minutes before Joel showed up at the door. He didn’t recognize him at first, but Joel spotted him and walked to the table before he was greeted by a host. Dustin stood up as Joel came towards him with a wide smile. “Joel.” He put his hand out for Joel to take, but it was pushed it aside and he came in with a full body hug. Dustin did not return his friends embrace, but he did pat him on the back a few times while he was gently squeezed. He could feel Joel’s ribs pressing up against him, and although both of them were built slimly, he couldn’t help but notice that Joel’s body felt particularly bony. “Buddy.” Joel let go and took a step back, then put both of his hands on Dustin’s shoulders shortly before dropping them to his sides. “My friend, how are you?” The both of them moved to sit down and slid into the booth. “How am I? Well I guess I could say I’m pretty good, keeping busy, living the humble life,” Dustin said, returning his smile. He could not help but examine his friend. Joel had grown out his hair and it fell past his shoulders. He brushed a bit that fell on his face back with his hand and Dustin was struck by the look of him. He didn’t expect to see him as he did, unshaven and with small creases at the ends of his mouth and cheekbones. The shadows under his eyes were pronounced and his skin almost looked as though it was pulled too tight over his face. It took a moment, but after accepting what was unfamiliar, he saw the same man he had known years ago. “Your hair. I can’t believe it,” he said, softly shaking his head. “Believe it.” “How come—what made you grow it out so long?” “It’s something different from what I always had. I’ve been like this for a long time, it’s not like it just happened. You’ve just been,” he paused, “uh, in absentia.” Looking at his friend, Dustin both smiled and winced at the affectation, but then continued: “Your face too. You’re hairy all over.” “I’m a hairy man. I like it, you know? I haven’t seen you for fucking ever. And know who else likes it?” “I can guess.” “Women.” “Okay Fabio.” “So,” Joel paused to look at him, and he looked back. Any concerns Dustin had about being under-dressed were, to his relief, eclipsed by the fact that his friend had shown up in a loose, medium blue, long sleeve flannel; dark, indigo jeans; and sneakers, or at least it did for a moment before recognizing how Joel's company might reflect on him. “How are you really?” “I’m really okay.” “I can’t remember, I know someone told me but I can’t remember, where are you now, Montana?” “Oregon, Salem.” “That’s right, that’s right. Huh.” “Yup.” Joel sat motionless, keeping a natural smile, and a silence passed between them. “What have you been up to? What’s kept you so busy? It really has been a long time. Tell me.” “I haven’t been up to anything much, really. Just work I guess. I was thinking I might like to travel sometime soon. Thinking about it more and more often these days, but, I’m not sure, there are obstacles. Other than that, there hasn’t been much going on in my life. I might just be boring. I just can’t think of what else I do these days honestly.” “You're still working at…” “Lendricks, yeah.” Joel coughed and cleared his voice. “Corporate life huh?” He looked his friend in the eye. “Married life too. How is Daphne? Happy wife?” “She’s fine.” “Fine?” “Yes.” “You’re okay and she’s fine. Glad to hear it.” “Not much to say about it honestly.” Joel heard him and stopped a moment to decide what he would press upon his friend. “Alright. But jeez. You guys have been together a long while though, hey? And I don’t mean to pry, but any… you know, family plans?” Dustin turned his face away. “I don’t think so. No plans really.” “What about Daphne?” “What do you mean? I don’t know,” replied Dustin sourly, irritated by the bold question and assumed familiarity of the topic, thinking to himself that they had only just sat down together for the first time in half a decade. “Huh. I always thought that was the, you know, the trajectory you were on. I half expected you to tell me you already had, you know, a burgeoning family. It’s been a long time. I always thought that’s where you were headed. Not to suggest that there’s anything wrong with that, I just, like I said, I thought that’s where you were headed. It seems like that’s where everyone’s headed.” Dustin felt himself slowly growing more annoyed with Joel’s commentating, so he made an effort to take control of the conversation. “What about you,” he replied, restraining his annoyance from his tone, “what is it you’ve been doing with yourself?” “What have I been doing? I don’t know. I guess I’ve been doing the same stuff I’ve been doing since I last saw you.” “Such as?” “You know, performing when I can, working a shitty job as a laborer, livin’ it up. I’m just trying to enjoy life. A bit frustrated with my situation, I guess. Just don’t want to be working where I’m working, but I don’t want to be poor either. But you know, I’m good overall I think.” Dustin listened to him, and when he stopped, they were softly interrupted. The same hostess who had escorted Dustin to his seat approached the table. She was a lithe and beautiful girl, young, with russet bangs that curtained her neatly trimmed eyebrows, a soft, fragile neckline, and the gently hip-cocked posture of an unassuming sylph, and when Dustin Glanced at Joel, he saw him admiring her, smiling a familiar smile and steadying his eyes on hers while she returned his smile. She asked them if they didn’t want something to drink as she set menus down in front of them. The two of them both asked for water. Joel continued to watch her as she turned around, still smiling, and went to fetch their water. They both picked up their menus. Dustin scanned over the large card which listed its options only at market price, assuming everything would be appropriately pricey. Turning his menu horizontal, he asked Joel why he chose this particular restaurant. “Because I couldn’t remember us ever being here before. Actually, I searched online to find high end places with reviews if I’m being honest, and I saw this place and recognized it, and, you know, I figured it was warranted as we haven’t met in a long time. It’s good to match rare occasions with rare indulgence I think.” There was a pause as both men raised their menus, and after having made a decision, they laid them flat on the table. “You know, I don’t actually remember the last time we saw each other,” piped Joel. “My wedding.” “Is that right? I thought it might have been after that, but I guess not.” “Nope.” “That’s a good memory though. That was a good time, I got shit-faced, but I still remember the reception clearly. Everyone was out of it, but, I mean, what's the point in celebrating something like that without an open bar?” “Well it’s expensive. We could have done without, and probably would have if her parents didn’t insist on throwing their money into it. The Harbourfront was not cheap either.” “Oh well. Rare indulgence I guess.” “I guess,” said Dustin as a gentle, reflective, and sullen look came over his face. “Good memory.” “Yeah.” He stopped himself from getting tangled in his thoughts and searched for something to talk about. “How is the music going? Still playing I know, but branched out at all? Making any headway?” “Headway? I mean, in regards to what? Not many people care about jazz. As far as ‘branching out’ goes, yeah, I meet new people all the time I guess, and I play whenever I can. Did you think I would become self-sufficient?” “Well, no, but I thought you might have had a goal or something. Didn’t you go on a short tour or something way back when? I was just curious I guess.” Joel sighed. “Yeah, for sure man. How is it going… I mean it’s fine. I still play on the weekends. It’s not like my life isn’t still centered on it—well I’d like to believe that anyways. It’s not like I would stop, but I guess I just didn’t expect everything else in life to play out like it has.” Joel looked at Dustin’s with a sudden, weary sincerity before turning his head down toward the table. “So… I’m kind of feeling stuck, you know? Like I’m just going to be trapped and too worn out to go on indefinitely, and lately I’ve felt a little worn out. And I mean, going back, it’s not like I went to school with the idea of being a career artist. Well, actually, no, I guess that isn’t entirely true… Like, there are two different aspects to something like postsecondary arts. You have yourself believing in the lack of practicality in such an education, but that’s only really on the surface. There’s also your hopes, and your hopes are unrealistic, but deep down you fantasize and you prepare, and you think to yourself that if you really go hard at it you can take hold of your future. You can’t deny that deep down what you really believe is what you want to believe, but at the same time, you tell yourself that you recognize the lack of practicality, and that you’re simply learning something that will enrich your life or something, and that there’s no better purpose than that, you know? You believe yourself to be a practical person, but it’s just a trick. No one can believe that their fantasies won’t ever come true, there has to be that little bit of hope that sustains a fantasy, however unreal. Like all fantasies are pleasant, and they invite themselves into your thoughts, and they overtake rational belief, and as you dream them, there is nothing but belief. But when they go and get replaced by that need to be practical, they go painfully. They go until you let them come back, for whatever reason, and they eclipse the belief that you’re a practical person again. I’m just… over that. I’ve thought about looking for work in a tertiary role, but honestly, what I’m doing now just pays so much better, and I need that. And that’s pretty much how it’s going. It’s tiring.” “Oh.” Dustin was surprised by his friends long, candid answer, and although he could not think of how to reply, in that moment, he saw the man he remembered Joel to be, liberal and honest. Conversely, in seeing his friend struggle to respond, Joel was set upon with a certain disappointment. There was another silence between them, and all that was heard were the gentle murmurings of other diners. The both of them felt some relief when the hostess returned with their water moments later. Dustin turned to her, handing her his menu and giving his order. Joel looked at his menu for a moment, and then handed it to the server. “You know what? I don’t think I’m all too hungry.” Dustin looked at him and the hostess asked him if he was sure. “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll eat, I’m not terribly hungry, but could you bring me a vodka tonic?” She told him she surely could, but as she turned to walk away, he stopped her. “Actually, can you bring me a shot of whiskey too?” She nodded, smiled, told him she would bring a drink menu, and walked away. “Let’s have a drink. We’ll put it on my bill. What do you want? I’ll tell her when she comes back.” “Nothing. I don’t think I will. I have to be ready and feeling sharp tomorrow for work. I want to have a good rest, and I’m still feeling kind of off after the flight.” “You’ll have a good sleep if you have a drink. And it’s early, you’ll have plenty of time to put yourself in order before you go to bed.” “Sorry, I don’t think so.” “I think having a little drink in you can make for a better sleep, and I mean when are we going to see each other again?” “No,” Dustin said bluntly. “Alright, I won’t press you. You don’t mind if I drink do you?” “No, feel free. I don’t mind.” Joel began to roll his fingers on the table as the both of them searched for something to sustain their conversation. “So, what’s it like living in the States?” “It’s pretty much just like living here. It seems like people act busier, and they’re maybe a bit more political-ish. I’m not an expert, but I’ve never met anyone there who seemed like they had a substantive understanding of such things. But that’s just anecdotally. It’s hard to say. I don’t know too many people outside of my co-workers and neighbors honestly.” “That must be weird hey? Going from the politics of one country to another. Like you have to develop a new patriotism altogether. Well maybe patriotism isn’t the right word, but concern? For a new country.” “Well, I think that might be the case for some, but I think a lot of people in my position would feel like I do. I don’t really have it in me to get invested with that stuff. I don’t have it in me to care. I don’t care for what is happening down there, it’s a mess and people desperately insert themselves into these disputes that never escape their own heads, and so when they do speak up it’s always some mentally rehearsed diatribe. Sometimes people get so serious—sometimes, socially unhinged. This, here, is my home. I don’t really want to be down there forever, and I don’t plan to be.” Joel nodded, approving the sentiment. The hostess once again approached the two men in the booth, carrying a single, lonely drink on her serving plate. “Well that was fast.” She set down Joel’s drink and slid another menu, hand written, in front of him. She pointed out the stock of whiskeys and asked him if she should give him some time. He glanced at it once. “I appreciate it, but I think I already know. The Whistlepig. Thank you.” She asked him if he wanted to hang onto the menu, just in case, and he nodded and smiled. He watched her walk away to another table, where it seemed she was simply checking in. “She’s pretty, isn’t she,” he said, still watching. “She is,” agreed Dustin. He leaned forward and his mouth bent into a smirk as he mugged at his friend. Joel sighed. “Maybe I’ll try and talk to her when we finish here,” “If you’re drinking on an empty stomach, it might just be inevitable.” “My stomachs not empty.” “Okay. I guess you have no one in your life at the moment?” “Uh, no. I guess not. Things come and go, you know? I meet a lot of people.” “Sounds about right.” “I don’t know anything about myself when it comes to… companionship, I guess. I mean I don’t know what I’m doing really. You’re lucky.” The comment struck Dustin in his nerves once again, and he dipped his head a little, but then quickly readjusted himself. “Well I can’t offer much advice in that regard.” “There was someone, an actress. Or aspiring anyways, and that lasted for a few months a little while ago. I met her at DeVannies. Knowing her and her friends though, it’s kind of given me a negative opinion of actors I think.” He laughed a little. “Vapid, but what do you expect?” “Yeah.” “Lowest rung among artists. In retrospect it seems kind of obvious who that kind of work would attract.” “Yeah,” said Dustin, trying to maintain his little smile but making note of his friends' pettiness. Joel brought his drink up and began to suck on the straw, draining almost half the glass before setting it down again. He took a relaxed posture and leaned his head back on the cushioning. Although Dustin had so directly dismissed his friend's invitation to have a drink, he felt a sudden thirst while watching him. He was developing a mild headache and knew what would help. “So,” said Joel, “do you have plans to see anyone else while you’re here?” “No, I don’t. Just my parents.” “I like your parents. I wonder if they remember me.” “Of course they do, how many times did you pass out in my basement, then wake up in the morning to go upstairs and gab at them.” “Yeah, well I wanted to be friends.” “My mom is always asking me if I keep in touch with such and such. I’m sure you’ve been mentioned.” “That makes me happy.” “Do you still keep in touch with…anyone? Anyone I used to know?” “That’s, uh, pretty vague.” “Anyone from high school, or the U. You know who we, you and I, used to hang around with.” “People I keep in touch with.” Joel stared forward with a thoughtful look on his face. “I still bump into people from high school or whatever, yeah. Sometimes I guess.” “Any interesting developments?” “Not really, just, you know, ho-hum stuff. I’m sure there’s something interesting to be said, but probably not from me.” “That’s disappointing.” Joel then took a few minutes to rattle off a list of brief encounters he had with the people he and Dustin used to share a sphere with. “Actually,” he said, as if interrupting himself, “there was something kind of stupid, like two weeks ago. Do you remember my friend Steven? Kind of lanky, glasses.” “Uh, maybe, slightly. Was he the guy with us right after grad, and we ate the mushrooms?” “Yeah, and do you remember Vincent? Bulky guy?” “I think so. Yeah, Yeah I remember.” “I know you must have met them multiple times.” Before Dustin could respond the hostess came silently up beside the table carrying his food. “Well that was fast,” said Joel, repeating himself. She set down his whiskey before she walked away, and he quickly threw it into his mouth. “Mmm,” he hummed, “that’s wonderful.” He hunched over the table while Dustin unraveled his cutlery from his napkin. He drained the rest of his highball and pushed the glass aside as he began to talk.
“It was like two weeks ago and I got called up by Steven and asked if I wanted to come hang out with him and Vincent. I stopped by his place, but I had already made plans for the evening, and I told him that. We didn’t do much, just killed an hour or two with some beers, you know, whatever. But while I was there, shortly before I left, he and Vincent started packing up some water and some food into a back pack that rattled. Full of aerosol cans. They tried to convince me to go with them, to take some trip c’s they were divvying up, and to have an adventure, wherever they were going. I said I couldn’t so Steven put down a handful of pills, enough that was common for him, then Vincent swallowed what was left, which was about twice as much as Steven took. And that was the last time I saw or heard from them, until Steven called me up a few days later and told me what had happened to them after I left. He told me that he and Vincent were going to try and press charges on the police for misconduct. I was like, ‘what?’ And he started to explain to me what happened. “I think he was a bit off when he called me, but I still listened to him tell me this story with, you know, curiosity. So, after I left, I guess they just grabbed the back pack and went outside, going nowhere in particular, just walking, like you do sometimes if you’re going to get high. So, they just walked for a while and after about two hours they started to feel the pills kicking in, which is, you know, usual. At that point, they had wound up in an open ally behind—do you remember where that Blaze Pizza is? Well anyway they were there, and Steven I guess was feeling pretty good, but Vincent started stumbling and kind of let out this really slurred appeal to stop. So they stopped and Vincent just kind of stumbled and collapsed with his back against the restaurant. And he started trying and struggling to talk. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just got to sit down. I feel heavy, and not good,’ but of course his words were a lot more unintelligible. He swayed back and forth and kept on trying to say something, and like I said, Steven was feeling pretty good so he just put his hand on Vincents shoulder, telling him that it was alright, that it was going to be alright. So they were kind of stranded there. He hadn’t seen anybody walking by or coming into the alleyway, so Steven went to unzip the backpack and took out a spray-can, shook it up, and despite the fact someone from the street could have walked by and seen him, he began to spray out the large and round base of a tag with white paint. He was only able to get halfway through it when Vincent started saying ‘don’t, don’t,’ and Steven asked him why, but Vincent only replied ‘please don’t,’ so he didn’t and instead put the can away. “Vincent started to tell Steven he was scared. ‘I’m going to die,’ he said. ‘You’re not going to die. You’ll be fine. Do you want some water?’ and Vincent said ‘no, no, please don’t leave me.’ And obviously Steven told him that he wasn’t going to leave him. I guess Vincent kept on talking but became incomprehensible, with his head swaying from one side to the other, so Steven just sat down beside him, unwilling to leave him. Then all of a sudden, this back door, the back door of the restaurant I guess, swung open and this guy in an apron and little hat came outside, carrying some garbage bags. He looked at Steven and Vincent but then busied himself with the garbage. Then he turned and looked at the two guys again. He approached them and asked ‘are you guys okay?’ Steven said that they were fine and asked if they couldn’t be left alone. Vincent flopped his arms around a bit then pulled his knees up and toward his chest, wrapping his arms around them, and his head continued to roll around on his shoulders like a basketball circling the net. His mouth was agape and his eyes alternated, as I was told, between moments of closed concentration and wide-open terror. Steven told him they wouldn’t be long and asked to be left alone. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘every-thing’s fine man.’ The man in the apron said ‘okay,’ and went back inside the restaurant. Steven didn’t mention it, but he must have been kind of, you know, worried.”
On her way somewhere else, the hostess saw that Joel’s drink was nothing but ice and had been pushed to the edge of the table, so she approached the men, first asking Dustin what his initial impression of the food was, and he nodded, wiping the corners of his mouth with his napkin, saying “It’s wonderful, thank you.” She then asked if she could fetch Joel another drink. “Yeah please,” he said, “actually could you make it a double?” She nodded and took both his glass and shooter. As quickly as she walked away Joel told Dustin that he needed to piss, stood himself up, and disappeared. Dustin sat quietly and ate by himself. He had been listening to Joel's story with interest and was eager for him to continue, but felt it would be best to not make that interest apparent. An aloof bearing was something he was very practiced in, although he would never question himself as to whether or not it was a necessary comfort. Joel returned quickly enough, sitting himself down. Dustin looked at him plainly and waited for him to continue, but when Joel returned him an absent stare, he made himself look as though he was preoccupied with his food. The hostess came and set down Joel’s drink. “Why thank you miss.” She smiled at him and walked away. “So, yeah. Sorry if I trailed off a bit there.” Dustin looked back up at him expectantly, and he returned to his story.
“So yeah, I was saying, these guys were sitting there, but I guess Steven was getting kind of anxious being stuck where he and Vincent were clearly visible. So he tried a couple of times to get Vincent on his feet and moving, but could only manage to get him through a few steps each time. He would just kind of fall back, and whether that was because he was too fucked up to want to move, or he was just too fucked up to move, I’m not really sure. And I mean he’s a big guy. Honestly, I’ve been there, if not a long time ago. It sucks. After a while, I guess Steven just gave up and slouched down beside Vincent. He was high so he probably didn’t want to be stuck where they were, because, like I said, they were in an open alley and could clearly see out on to Granville. It’s always busy there, and they were just as visible to all the passersby as the passersby were to them. This was just like about two weeks ago, and I don’t remember exactly, but it must have been pretty hot, it’s been hot for a while, except for today I guess. Steven said he tried to give Vincent some water from the bottle they had packed and Vincent just kind of shook his head, or choked a little, and most of it just dribbled down his chin. He tried talking again, saying ‘this isn’t right,’ and ‘I’m sorry’ over and over. I guess Steven thought about leaving Vincent for a moment so he could find a taxi and maybe explain to the driver that his friend was very drunk and they needed a ride, but he hesitated to leave Vincent alone, and imagined trying to get him to stand up and walk enough to even get him to the curb and how much effort it would take. “So they sat for a while. It wasn’t long until some officers drove up into the alleyway and stopped their car next to those guys. These cops got out and approached them. And you know that really familiar way they talk to you, and it’s really condescending, like they’re always in the right, and their ego is justified with a badge? What most police do, they took that really casual tone. ‘How you doing guys?’ one asked. From the way Steven told it, he was just resigned to their fate at that point. One of the cops pointed to Vincent, who was curled up with his face in his knees and said ‘Your friend doesn’t look like he’s feeling very well. Is he okay?’ Steven told him they were fine, then asked him if someone had complained about them, to which the officer replied ‘Yeah, yeah there was a call from, I guess, one of the managers here,’ he gestured towards the building, ‘I guess he was kind of worried about a couple guys hanging out back behind his store. What have you guys been up to?’ The other cop picked up the backpack and shook it a bit, then opened it. He set it down and touched the still wet paint on the wall with his index finger. ‘You guys were doing a little painting huh. There’s nothing wrong with that, I paint a bit, but you got to stick to a canvas, you know? I’m assuming you guys know you shouldn’t be painting where no one asked for an artist,’ is what he said because they’re always fucking condescending like that. And Steven said nothing. ‘I have to ask you honestly, can you tell me what’s going on with your friend? He doesn’t look like he’s feeling that well. If you can’t tell me I can’t help, and he looks like he needs a bit of help. You know I’m going to have to ask you guys to come with us anyways. We can’t really let you off with a warning this time. You can’t be painting someone else's property. I just want to make sure that your friend gets some help if he needs it. I don’t wanna have to bring him into the station and wait for someone to tell me that he needs to go to ER or something. If you can tell me what you guys have been up to, I’ll be able to call ahead and everything will go a lot quicker.’ Steven surrendered to his request and explained that Vincent had just taken a bit too much Coricidin, and that he was going to be fine. ‘I see,’ said the officer. He walked back to his car while his partner loomed over them like they were children. He came back no more than a minute later and told Steven that they were going to bring him into the station but they would stop by the ER where one of them would escort Vincent, ‘We’re not going to call an ambulance, but we just want to make sure nothing happens,’ he said. “They stood Steven up, cuffed his hands behind his back, and walked him to the car where they had him take his seat. Obviously Vincent was not having a very good time. His arms were limp when the officers cuffed him. It took both officers to stand him up, but when they did so he began to flail around in rebellion. The officers warned him that he needed to settle down, but nonetheless they got him to the car. He put up a pretty strong resistance and the cops continued to warn him, to which he only replied ‘please, please,’ but they couldn’t understand what he was saying. They had to force Vincent in the back of the car, but I guess when they tried to do so, Vincent’s head whipped the top of the door frame violently. After he was in, the officers tried to explain to him he could be charged with resisting arrest, but they also understood trying to communicate with him was likely pointless. So I guess that Steven and Vincent sat quietly, but after some time Steven noticed that Vincents head was hanging, and that he had stopped moving altogether. When Steven tried to inch himself over and talk to his friend, he saw that Vincent seemed to be unconscious. There was also blood in his hair and it was starting to drip onto his cheek. Luckily, they had just arrived at the hospital and Steven leaned forward and tried to get the officers attention through the glass divide. ‘He’s not okay I think you guys hurt him.’ One of the officers turned around and said ‘hey… hey!’ There was no response. He and his partner, after they had stopped, got out and opened the car door where Vincent was. He was unconscious. Both officers needed to lift him and carry him to ER where he stayed for a while and was later told he had a concussion.”
Joel turned his head and coughed into his shoulder then looked around to see if the hostess was near. She was flitting between tables and seating newcomers, as the room had started to slowly fill up with men and women in formal wear. Others, men in business suits, started to line the bar. “So yeah, fuck the police and all that. I seriously doubt anyone will actually get in trouble. Shit like that happens all the time and no one ever does anything.” Dustin pursed his lips. “What exactly is there to be done. It sounds like an accident.” “What do you mean? There wouldn’t be any accidents if they didn’t employ excessive force.” “The way you told it, it seems like it was unavoidable.” “I’m inclined to believe Steven when he says it was avoidable. I mean it’s no uncommon thing for police to be dickholes. You can’t really be sure, you weren’t there.” “Were you?” “I know for certain that a job like that attracts a certain type of person. Usually not the kind I have much respect for.” “I think anti-establishment feelings are supposed to fade with age.” “Agree to disagree I guess. I’m disillusioned with that reality.” “I think I’m the one who's disillusioned with that reality.” What Dustin took away from the story, more than anything else, was a sense of the familiar. Joel was still living the life that he had been long ago. He imagined him going through the same weekly routine, getting drunk, or getting high, and having no interest in change. When they were both teenagers causal drug use seemed like a mark of precociousness, but in truth, Dustin thought, it was often the beginning of a stunted lifestyle. Joel had been sipping on his drink intermittently as he was talking. There was a pause between the two men. He took a long drink and finished it, pushing it to the edge of the table. Dustin watched him with some small envy. His headache had grown and he began to feel like having a drink would make their company move along so much easier. He questioned if having a drink would actually cause any stress, or hurt his ability to deal with his work the next morning. One drink couldn’t hurt, he thought. Considering Joel’s earlier offer, he also wondered if he wasn’t being rude. Of course he wasn’t, he recognized the mental gymnastics he was starting to reason with, yet looking at Joel’s drained glass, sweating and full of ice, he was failing to dissuade himself. Joel looked at his friend, who seemed to be deep in thought, and felt a little guilty. “I mean who knows. It’s probably unfair to make such a blanket statement like that.” “Huh?” Dustin looked up. “Oh no, sorry, I was just caught in thought, it’s all good, I was just a little distracted.” Joel laughed. He was relaxed and becoming cheerful. “You know I’ve got to ask again. Sure you don’t want to have a drink with me?” He shook the ice cubes in his glass like dice. Dustin said nothing for a moment, and then looked up at Joel. “Yeah, okay, what the hell.” “Atta boy,” said Joel, beaming. He turned his head to look for the hostess, and when he caught her eye he smiled. She put one finger up to let him know she would be there as soon as she could. When she came around, she first took Dustin's plate and asked him if he was satisfied. He nodded without saying anything, and she then asked Joel if she should bring him another drink. “Yeah, and my friend will have one as well.” “Do you have a list of beers?” She pointed to the drink menu in front of Joel. He lifted it up and looked it over quickly. “Just a Hoegaarden thanks.” “I think we’ll have some shots too. Two of them. The Whistlepig.” She nodded and went on her way. Dustin scanned the menu to find the whiskey, and when he found it, he grimaced. “Jesus Christ Joel, that’s not okay. I guess this is the price for a drink, but still I can’t ask you to buy that for me. That’s like… forty dollars for four ounces of liquor.” “You don’t have a choice my friend.” Dustin looked at him with discomfort. “Really, don’t worry about it. Honestly, I’m just glad to get out with you. It’s been such a long time. I find myself thinking a lot about how things used to be. Life really does divide us. There are some people I still see, but for the most part people just fade from your memory. And it’s kind of striking because I think it’s only at this age that we’re really able to appreciate that for the first time. I mean you're always forgetting about someone, but it’s taken on a different meaning when you’re leaving your twenties, if you know what I mean. Like crossing into old age. Well, not old age, but maybe real adulthood? Unpretentious adulthood. Undeniable adulthood.” Dustin nodded, his eyes drifting elsewhere. “But no, really, I thought it would be different seeing you again, I’ve always appreciated your company.” “Well, thanks Joel, I wanted to see you too.” Dustin smiled and thought about how long it might take for his drink to come now that the place had started to fill up. “Uh huh, I guess I’ve just felt a little weird. And I thought, well that guy always knew what was what.” Dustin turned his head to see where the hostess was. Joel began to talk at length about the mischief they had once enjoyed, stopping sporadically to ask Dustin if he remembered, to which he would nod his head reflexively. “I mean, can I be honest with you?” Joel asked, leaning forward a little. “Sure.” “You know, earlier, when I said I was kind of worn out, with the whole music thing, I think I misspoke. I just meant I felt a little run down in general. I’d never stop playing. It’s just hard working up the enthusiasm after a fifty-hour week. I wish I could…” he trailed off and Dustin watched his eyes fall. “Do you, uh, make any extra money?” “Not really no.” “Well…” “You know my dad was a laborer. I’m sure we’ve probably talked about this before. Never knew him too well though, but now that I’m pipefitting I feel like I understand a bit more about his life. That probably sounds stupid. Like it’s uncommon. It’s not. I’m just saying, all this money, just to live in a nice house and get out on the weekends. No real time or energy for anything else. Of course he had other kids, so who knows how he split his time up. For me, doesn’t even really seem like living sometimes. It’s like, ‘what am I doing?’” Dustin looked away as he tried to come up with some way to recognize his meaning and respond with understanding, but he simply didn’t know how. “Sometimes I do actually worry about music though. Sometimes I wonder if playing music was only ever a focus in my life because it suited who I thought I was going to be when I was still young.” The hostess came with the drinks, balancing them on her serving tray, setting them down on the table one by one with her free hand. She had taken a while longer to fetch them, but the men were nonetheless grateful. Dustin was even relieved. “Perfect,” said Joel. She walked away and Joel pushed one of the shots toward Dustin, holding his own up in the air, waiting for a wordless toast. Dustin obliged him and threw the liquor into his mouth, swallowing quickly. “Hoo. That's what a twenty-dollar shot of whiskey tastes like?” Joel snorted. “Now you still have to catch up.” “What do you mean?” “I’m saying put it back. If you finish your drink before me, I’ll pay for it.” Dustin, at that point, had already committed himself. If he was going to drink, he might as well follow through. He put the bottle to his lips and drained it by half. Joel also sucked greedily on his straw. “Jesus, maybe I shouldn’t have asked her for a double.” He kicked at Dustin's feet under the table playfully, and Dustin was reminded of their younger years. He recognized where they were, not physically, but in regards to the state they were approaching. He could see it in the smile of Joel’s thin lips and the creases on his face. He thought about what Joel had said on their exiting their twenties. It was true, they were in a strange and uncertain space. Becoming what they were then becoming, and the both of them trying to escape what they had otherwise become. This was a scene out of time, he thought, not at all appropriate, but there was no fighting it now. He looked at his friend and couldn’t help but question why they were even together after so much time. He did not know how to value it. Much in the way Joel was becoming disenchanted with his music, Dustin couldn’t help but question if he was disenchanted with Joel. Perhaps he too was merely what Dustin felt was once suitable, as if he was merely conditional. Dustin became caught up in his thoughts, allowing Joel to needlessly elaborate on his feelings towards his music, repeating much of what he said about the reality of being a career artist. He pretended to listen politely, but he was feeling as if he were being drawn away somewhere, distracted by his own thoughts and registering less and less of what Joel had to say. Joel had shared his troubles, but then went on in endless after-thoughts and emphasis and elaborations on nothing that needed elaborating. “What I hate more than anything else is these guys I have to work with, and they’re exactly the kind of guys that would… that would be like stereotypical of the kind of work I’m doing now. Like, they’re absolute pigs. And every time I have to stand outside and listen to them slacking off to each other, it’s just gross. And it sucks because I’m always around them, you know? In some ways I guess I’m glad I’ve got the job I have, because there isn’t a ton of work around right now, but I feel so out of place, I shouldn’t have to be there. I can’t imagine you being there, or just guys like us in general. You know… listen, I get, and I always have, really got you. You know what they say about people like us, with our particular body type?” “What?” “Well we’re ectomorphs, right? Like when have smaller or slimmer bodies, but tend to be much more intelligent. I know you’re like that, I think that’s why we always got along because we’re both like that.” “Yeah?” Dustin kept the emotion out of his face, but his eyes nonetheless were mocking and pointed. “I’m serious, it’s true, you should look it up. I mean, I don’t know how you feel about your job, but I think we aren’t where we are supposed to be. We’re really not, you know? It’s like, it’s kind of messed up the way things seem sometimes. Everything is controlled so that everyone is treated equally and fairly. But that’s a contradiction, what is equal isn’t fair, and it never will be. And in reality, that fucks people over and out of what they deserve. And common sense is an oxymoron!” A few well-dressed patrons of the restaurant threw some cutting glares towards the two men, and Dustin felt some embarrassment. He raised a finger to his lips. “Come on.” “Oh shoot, sorry, sorry,” said Joel, lowering his voice, “I don’t know why I was a bit loud, sorry.” “It’s okay, you weren’t that loud. I think it’s less that you were loud and more that this place is very quiet. So, it sounds like you’re itching to start a revolution.” “I think people should have to pass an aptitude test before they’re allowed to vote, at the very least.” “I can imagine something like that being abused.” “Yeah, maybe.” They nipped at their drinks. “But hey look, I feel like I’ve been talking about myself forever. Really, I’m sorry, I just got caught up on some thoughts. I know you didn’t really mention much, but how are you doing really? And I mean if you don’t want to say you don’t got to, I just want to know what's going on with you.” “I don’t know, I’m fine.” “Come on.” Dustin finished his beer, and seeing him, Joel bent forward and finished his own drink. Between the beer and the whiskey, Dustin was just a little buzzed. He didn’t know if he wanted to share his life with him. It was true that Joel had approached him with heavy handed honesty, but he felt no urge or duty to reciprocate. At the same time, he felt it might be nice to talk to someone sympathetic, even if it was drunken sympathy. Joel’s words, they were full of tactless self-regard, as, he thought, was typical of those who would talk endlessly about themselves. It was just the vapid comradery of the freshly drunk, but ultimately, Dustin, looking him over, felt that he was of little consequence and that confiding in him would be of little consequence too. “Okay, well, like I said, I’m more or less doing just fine. I guess, sometimes, more so recently, I feel anxious of what the future has in store for me. Just kind of going day in, day out, sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for catastrophe, I guess. Maybe I’m even preparing for it.” “You mean you don’t think your job is secure?” “Well… no.” He paused. “It’s just me and Daphne. I don’t think things are going to work out. I think I’m going to ask her for a divorce, that is, if she doesn’t first.” “Oh no way. Why do you think that?” “I don’t really know how to explain it, but it’s pretty set in stone at this point I think.” “There’s no big reason to it?” “I don’t know. I don’t understand her. I know her, but I guess I’ve just kind of lost respect for her. Actually no, that’s kind of unspecific. She’s just always so angry, and I struggle to make sense of it. It’s a womanly anger. No, it’s more like, we don’t talk and she blames me for it. I don’t know how it came about really. She gets angry, I think, because she knew before I did that things weren’t working out, but she didn’t want to acknowledge that. I think she doesn’t know any other way to express her unhappiness or disappointment, so she gets angry. I mean, I’ve known her for a long time, and whenever she’s not mad, it’s just like I’m living with a stranger.” “Oh shit.” “Yeah.” Another silence passed between them. “Well shit man, that sucks. Not really unheard of though. I think a lot of people, especially people like, you know, you, people who get married early, they just lose respect for each other. They're just not prepared to take that plunge into another person's problems and faults, because really it’s dark there, and that is the same for everyone.” Dustin felt as if he was being patronized, but he appreciated the sentiment. “It happens a lot, I think. It definitely doesn’t mean that either of you guys are bad or anything, it’s just, you know, it’s just a part of life. You found each other, and experienced what you weren’t familiar with, and jumped the gun maybe. It’s nothing you need to hide.” The hostess came to check in on them, and when she approached the table, Joel said “Perfect, perfect timing,” and he smiled up at her. “I think we need some more drinks. Same round as last time. You remember?” She remembered. Dustin examined her face as she addressed Joel. Behind her smile, and behind her eyes, there was a look that said ‘this is no place to get loaded.’ She asked him if a single was okay. “A single? I am. I’m sorry, are you?” She laughed said she was just looking out for him, and that he had already hit peak charming, too much more would hurt him. “Oh god don’t break my heart. I’ll trust you. A single is fine.” She left and he turned back to Dustin. “Sorry about that. But hey I’ve got to be real with you now.” “What do you mean, were you not being real?” “I just um, I mean I need to ask, can I be honest with you?” Dustin shrugged. “This all ties back into what I was saying you know? When I said we were alike, and this is how I know this. Like, you just jumped in without looking. We all have to do our own thing, but I think what you did was really taking the easy way out. I wasn’t going to say this, because I thought it was just about your job being unworthy of you, you know?” Dustin furrowed his brows with confusion. “It’s what so many people do, it’s taking the easy way out. Honestly? You got married because you had no other ideas man, when I hear about stuff like what's going on with you, it’s impossible to not come to the conclusion that you just did it because you didn’t want to put in the effort to be yourself. Like really, be honest with yourself, you guys didn’t date for a super long time. Did you ever actually like her? I mean, love her I guess, I know you liked her. But Daphne? I’ve never had any doubts about who she is. She would have been with anyone who was willing to take care of her, you know?” Dustin's face went flush with anger. He kept himself contained, but he lost all intentions of carrying on a sincere conversation with Joel. “Like that’s just the appeal of a pedestrian life, you don’t got to think. No, she was more interested in settling down than she was in having a good relationship. That’s for sure. And for you, well it was just an easy opportunity to not look at your life man. Like come on, you can’t have been honest with yourself if you married her. You just didn’t want to put in the effort of being, like, fully mature. The easy way out, pretending like you guys were deep. I mean really-” “You need to shut up Joel,” he said sharply. “Oh Jesus, I uh, I’m sorry. I was trying to say- I mean nothing, never mind. I’ve had a few drinks. But I mean really, I thought it made sense. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, it’s just an opinion, no not even that, just a loose thought. I didn’t mean anything by it.” He was shaking his head. “No, it’s okay. I’m not respecting boundaries. I just feel like I know you, I mean we haven’t seen each other in a long time, but I still feel like I know you, because I think we’re a lot alike and I feel like I always knew that.” Dustin sat without responding. The hostess returned with their drinks and an expression on her face that showed some weariness. Joel stared at her and she smiled at him before she left. The two men sat and drank in silence. “I hope it’s okay, I didn’t mean to make you angry.” Dustin glared at him for a moment. “It’s fine.” “Hey.” Joel lifted his shot glass into the air, his hand shaking a little. Dustin reluctantly obliged him, but his thoughts were wandering away. Joel’s accusation ate at him, and he couldn’t help but try and find some evidence to the contrary. He asked himself if he had ever loved his wife, but could not come up with an answer. He struggled with the notion that, perhaps, he had never even known what love was. But what was it really, he thought, nothing as substantial as people might like to portray it. There were happy memories that he had held onto even as their relationship suffocated. She was still a beautiful woman, but he didn’t know what that meant to him, or if there was anything else to it. He could remember her smile and the way she once held onto him and other times when they seemed so satisfied with one another, but he failed to understand meaning beyond such things. Perhaps she was simply there at the right time. Perhaps he had failed to discriminate on such serious matters of life. Joel went through his drink fast and started to talk casually at Dustin once again. “Remember when we crawled and snuck into The Ranch club? Kicking up the sod and then just talking under the tree. Who was there? I wonder what they thought when they found our mess and all the cans and shit.” Joel talked about the good times he thought they had together. Partying. Not caring. He tried bringing up some sentimental moments that had a long time ago happened between them, but they were always stories of being drunk or high; things that, when Joel brought them up as though they were deeply meaningful, now seemed disgracefully indulgent to Dustin. He spoke emphatically about these once powerful moments, and the more he listened, the more Dustin felt melancholy, seeing how Joel clutched such things. Perhaps he was just lonely in his own right. “It would be nice to go back sometime, you know? The thought has been stuck in my head for a few days honestly. It would be nice to go back. But I think everyone must feel like that, right?” Dustin shrugged. “I think I should probably get going here, I’ve got some stuff to do to get ready for tomorrow.” “Okay, okay. You know what, I’ve got the bill. I won’t take no for an answer, it was my idea to get together.” “Go nuts.” They both finished their drinks. Dustin stepped outside while Joel went to settle of the bill. The sun had set and there were only a few people walking about. He felt a mild breeze, one that carried only the little noise of tumbling litter being swept around in the street. He looked to where he had earlier seen the beggar, but there were only shadows. He then dialed for a taxi and waited. After a few minutes he started to wonder if Joel was making an ass of himself in front of their server, but at that moment Joel sauntered out of the restaurant and came up next to him. “Quiet. How you getting back to your hotel?” “Taxi.” “Oh yeah.” “You?” “I’m in the parking lot on Seymour.” “You’re driving? Probably shouldn’t.” “No no no, It’s okay I’m fine. Really.” Dustin thought about protesting, but the wind came and rinsed away any pretenses of concern. He had been in the situation many times before and there was no point in trying to stop him. Joel swayed a bit and was in no condition to drive, but Dustin told himself it wasn’t his responsibility. Maybe he would kill himself one day, but it wouldn’t be that night. He was much too present to die that night. “Well, uh, it was good seeing you again man.” Dustin nodded. “I’m sure I’ll see you again sometime.” Joel walked down the street to where the parking complex was. He turned around once to wave at Dustin, probably unsatisfied with the tepid farewell. Dustin raised his hand once, then turned away. He felt numb on the inside, warmed only slightly by the liquor. Their friendship had ended long ago, the fact that his opinion on Joel had soured that night had little to do with the reality of things. For him, the dinner was going to be a farce regardless of how it played out and he could not think of why he had ever thought differently. He told himself that Joel had very much been the product of circumstance. He was a friend when he needed him to be, and was wild when he needed to be wild. His taxi arrived and drove him through the dark, desolate streets and to his hotel. As he quietly unlocked and entered his room, he became aware of how tired he really was. He also felt a little unwell, as if he were developing a cold, so he decided to go directly to bed without showering. He would take care of himself in the morning. In bed, alone but for his thoughts, he found he could not ignore the manifest ember that kept him awake, a kernel to illuminate the forever approaching collapse of his life. There was an anxious tension, and he realized he was afraid. He could not suppress that fear—that fear which he found when questioning the bonds of his life. He tossed to one side then the other, as if he could put his thoughts to rest through physical comfort. What was most painful was the idea of loneliness. He did not want to be alone, but at the same time could not banish the thought that he was fundamentally alone, just as much as anyone else. But he was now something rare in being conscious of it. He wondered if it was even possible to know someone with truthful intimacy, as what he would find, what everyone would find in one another, was something too repugnant to fully accept. Reaching that certain depth, he thought, meant only that one would cease to know another for their person, and instead know them only in the recognition of the helpless, spasming child at the very root, demanding everything without purpose. In knowing someone enough, it was impossible to not see the worst not only in them, but oneself too. Who would admit such a thing? He wanted to believe that he might be wrong, and that maybe one day he would find something truly different, different enough to know that he was not alone, but he could not believe it. All these thoughts came to him, and to him they were all new, and at that moment he wondered if he wasn’t some kind of pioneer. Looking too deep into another was a fathomless proposition. But he was different, he thought, he was brave. He knew at that moment that he was beholden to no one but himself, and no happiness but that which he made for himself. He told himself that in him there was not the barren wastes where everything that was so human was reduced to its most natural, vacuous simplicity. He tried to affirm this as an unquestionable truth within himself, for who could know such things but him? But then there was doubt. He kept himself awake, worrying until his exhaustion got the better of him. He began to shut down, but as he did, he unconsciously sought something. Something fixed. Something certain. His last thoughts were of his wife's body when it was still intimate, pressed up against him, and he could almost feel her warmth as he drifted off to sleep.
The Passions Rejected
Sam leaned in close to her reflection in the broad, aging vanity and swept the spoolie through her eyelash with a practiced and meticulous hand, making sure the mascara was not too heavy and not clustered anywhere. “How long are you going to take to finish? Well don’t answer that, I already know. You’re really like an artist, aren’t you? Or maybe, like, a clown. I’m joking, I guess, but hurry up please.” Marlo sighed and watched her friend work for a moment before rolling onto her back and stretching her arms out across her flowered pink bedsheets. The room was pink altogether, as it had been since she was young, with the distinction of the peeling white vanity, a white dresser, and some over-sized stuffed animals resting against the pillows at the head of the bed. She sat back up when she heard Sam setting down the brush and turning herself around on the stool. “Sorry,” said Sam, “I just- I didn’t have time and you asked me to come over. I needed to shower and then you called. I just wanted to be clean before I left, and I didn’t have any time to get ready after my shower. Figured I could just get ready here.” Her words came out in a meek whine as she sought to excuse herself from Marlo’s disparaging tone. She put her hands together at her knees and tugged at the typical sweatband on her wrist. Marlo snorted to herself in such a subtle way that it was imperceptible to Sam. “Could have just done it earlier, it doesn’t really matter. I just need a little help. I don’t want to go too crazy, but I need your help for tonight.” “Sorry.” Sam turned back around to face the mirror and picked up another brush. “Oh, you’re not done.” Marlo stood up, walked over to her friend, and looked over her shoulder into the mirror. She was a rotund woman with a chubby face, sloping cheek bones, and a thick brow. She brushed her hair back and consciously avoided looking at her friend's reflection. In contrast to that plump figure, Sam was a slender and fragile looking girl with soft features, one who was always heavily made up and always carefully dressed. Although she usually found great anxiety in sight of herself, she nonetheless had an inborn knack for aesthetics, and if one found her in public, with an unfamiliar eye, they could never deny that she was a stunningly beautiful girl. Unfortunately for her, cosmetics were only a transient fix. A simmering revulsion was part and parcel of the most recurring and dominant judgments she made on herself. Such conceptions informed the discomfort that only ever allowed her to venture anywhere people gathered when she was pacified by the careful application of high-end foundation, concealer, primer, blush, and so on, and her irrational standards sometimes crippled her ability to cope with even the smaller social discomforts of life. Any extended time she spent in public would tend to leave her both agitated and exhausted. She was a woman who would wake up every morning and feel oppressed by the sight of herself. She would examine her face, then her figure, then her face again, and it was a face which she thought to be, without preparation, mousy and unappealing, so she always took great care and gave generous time to her rituals. The both of them looked into the mirror with some disdain. “You remember that Lina girl I was talking about? I knew her through high school after you had gone. Remember I told you she was in one of my classes now? She’s still the same as I remember. She does this really obnoxious thing. I last saw her before our finals. I know she always does well, but she does this thing where she preemptively handicaps her expectations before she does anything. I know she was coming out of the class with an A, but she always acts like she’s not prepared and like she’s going to bomb. Of course she never does. I think she just can’t handle the idea of someone else judging her like that, or her judging herself I guess, so she preemptively acts like she has sabotaged herself when she hasn’t. I think she has a complex.” What specific conditions constituted a complex Marlo didn’t know, but after spending four university semesters studying psychology, she liberally dispensed psychological profiles and observances, and she did so mostly with confidence and frankness. “Yes, I remember you saying,” said Sam, cautiously dabbing at her face. Marlo said nothing for a minute, then scowled. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re being dishonest?” Sam paused for a moment, her expression wilting. “It seems like the only thing you can’t hide is the bump on your nose. I’m not a preachy person, you know, I just sometimes think it’s unhealthy. I’m not like that.” Sam exhaled. “I’m good at makeup,” she said, quietly. Marlo looked her over once. “Well there’s no changing who you are, I guess. A big shame about life. You should stay for the party here, all my family is coming, and some other friends too, and we can see the fireworks from the balcony.” “I can’t, I really want to see Evan. He was like my best friend when I was younger and I miss him.” “Does it really matter how much of a friend he was at this point? Usually people don’t pick up right where they left off.” “I think so. I want to see him.” “You knew him from school? I certainly don’t remember.” “Before I left I did. In the first and second years, he was like the only person I could talk to. We skipped more classes than we went to, and I was always able to talk to him. I was sad when I stopped seeing him, I just couldn’t go back there, and I didn’t want to see anyone after that. I couldn’t keep going there, but I don’t really want to think about it. I almost didn’t leave because of him though.” She stalled her hand for a second as painful memories came to her. The truth was that Evan had simply met a number of qualifications Sam didn’t know she needed her friends to have, and for the rarity of that alone she had very much loved him, or at least she did in the time she knew him. If there was one most crucial attribute he had, it was that he wasn’t a woman, so he was exempt from the most immediate defense Sam employed. She had always struggled greatly to make friends with other women—women apart from Marlo. It was one of many reasons she withdrew socially and so often found herself lonely, so when she happened to reconnect with Evan by chance while shopping with her dad one day, she couldn’t help but imagine her whole life on the upswing. “Okay, whatever. Are you just going to go out to the field?” asked Marlo. “He said I should come with him and his brother to the bar, and then across to Lochwood to watch the fireworks.” “Oh, a bar on a national holiday that’s essentially one giant excuse for stupid people to get drunk. I’m sure that’ll be fun.” Marlo backed away from the mirror and towards her bed. “Well, here, there, doesn’t matter. I know you’re really the life of the party.” “Sorry,” said Sam, not knowing why. She thought for a minute about Marlo’s point and recognized that it might be uncomfortable, but the idea of seeing her old friend again overtook her worry. She had been anticipating the day for a while, and there was nothing that would be said to dissuade her. “It won’t be all night.” “Are you going to call me after? You call me after.” “I guess so.” “I might be drinking a bit myself, but you call me. Okay?” “Okay.” Sam set the brush down and examined herself in the mirror. She turned her head one way, then the other, looking for inconsistencies no one but she would ever notice. She got up and took a step back, twisting at the hip and smoothing her blouse, looking in her own eyes and running her hand along the hair that draped over her sharp shoulders. “Are you okay? You’re done?” “Yes.” “I hope you’re up to standard.” “What time is it?” Marlo pulled out her phone. “Quarter to seven.” “What?” “Quarter. To. Seven.” “Oh shoot, uh. No, I have to go. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how long I’ve been here.” Sam walked over to where she had thrown her purse on the bed, and she scrambled to gather the items that had spilled out when she did so. “Uh, what? You’re going to help me get ready quick.” “No, I can’t, I’m sorry, I have to go, if I knew the time it would have been different. I’m already going to be late. I’m sorry.” “What? You’re going to help me get ready.” “No I can’t I-” “Seriously?” Marlo looked hard into her eyes, and Sam was silent. “Text your friend and tell him you’re going to be late.” Sam relented, and, distraught, she pulled out her phone and started typing with her thumbs. Marlo sat upright on the stool and Sam came up behind her, running her fingers through Marlo’s hair, and as she worked, she intermittently threw glances at herself in the mirror, compounding her anxiety in a way not fully understood by her. She held herself back from rushing, although she desperately wanted to.
She was an hour late by the time she reached the neighborhood where she agreed to meet with Evan and his brother. After texting him about her delay, he responded that it was fine and that she didn’t need to worry so much. It was a warm summer evening and the traffic was dense. The cars crawled slowly along, only a cars length at a time. It was a grid-lock caused in large part by lengthy processions of pedestrians crossing the roads with their families and friends, carrying collapsed lawn chairs and beach blankets as they went to stake out a nice patch of ground at the park. She had trouble enough simply finding Evan’s house with the directions she was given, let alone navigating such traffic, but she eventually found herself in a shared parking space surrounded by condominiums that matched what Evan had described to her. She reached for her phone but then saw Evan and his brother approaching her car, and she got out to meet them. Evan came up to her and they hugged affectionately. “Hello beautiful,” he said, “and you are beautiful right now. Really, I’m being genuine. I missed you.” “Hi,” she responded softly, smiling. Evan took a few steps back. “You remember my brother Ricky?” Ricky smirked at her and gave a stiff wave, lifting his hand and opening it in the way a magician might demonstrate an object disappearing from their closed fist. “Hello, yeah we’ve probably met at some point I think, maybe,” he said. Sam looked back at him, and with he and Evan standing close she couldn’t help but notice the contrast between them. She knew Evan had a twin, but looking at them without knowing it, she never would have guessed it. Ricky looked to be almost half a foot taller with bushy and tightly coiled hair distinct from his brothers short and straight hair done up with a little cowlick. She gave a sheepish little wave and then turned to Evan, attempting to hide the discomfort she felt in sight of his brother. “I’m sorry I’m late, I am. I got caught up doing something and it took more time than I thought and I kind of-” Evan interrupted her, running over her words until she stopped, “No, okay, you can stop. Stop-stop-stop. Honestly, we are going to be waiting even longer regardless. And I’m not in any rush, I never really go out for stuff like this. What’s there to celebrate, really?” “Ok.” She tried to summon something to say, but couldn’t help but be feel embarrassed in Ricky's presence. She pulled at the sweatband on her wrist and thought that she would much prefer to have Evan alone. “I don’t really celebrate either.” “I don’t know where to start,” said Evan, “what are you doing? Are you working?” “No, I’m just living with my dad.” Sam closed her gaze on Evan, but was still very conscious of his brother standing to the side of them; she was trying not to look at him, only seeing him in her peripherals. She felt nervous, and her nerves sparked a need to reaffirm something in herself. She imagined his eyes scanning her, she could feel it, and with her hand she inconspicuously tugged at a belt loop on her tight jeans to reveal a small bit of skin, then cocked her exposed hip at him. As it happened, Ricky’s eyes were pointed at the road where a pilgrimage of many people was taking place. He wasn’t much looking at anything. “Oh that’s good, you guys are close hey?” “Yeah. And just so you know I was only late because I had to help a friend get ready for a party.” “Would you stop? It literally makes no difference.” He paused and looked contemplative for a moment. “It’s good that they asked you. I don’t have any friends as pretty as you Sam,” he told her. “I think the term is on point. Not that you even need to be, you’re beautiful all the same.” “Thanks…” “Mhm.” “Different from high school?” “Different? Maybe.” “There’s stuff I hoped I wouldn’t always be there, like the bump on my nose.” “Oh god, stop.” His face looked serious. “I’ll be perfectly honest with you. You are like the only girl I’ve ever been attracted to. I mean that with total certainty. God I don’t even know how I would feel otherwise. Because, you know, obviously.” “Because you like the dick,” Ricky interjected and laughed to himself. He had been listening to them and had a wide smile on his face. His remark was sudden, abrasive, and bold in a way that Sam couldn’t help but smile a little too. “Yeah, well I still won the genetic lottery between us. There wasn’t much dick left for you I think. Sam, choose one of us.” “Your very handsome,” she said to Evan. “You’re also as glib as a teenage girl, and you stink, God,” said Ricky. “Why, because I took the time to put on cologne? Did you even shower?” “I’m naturally odorless.” “Is this how you’re gunna be?” “I haven’t drank in a long time, if you think that’s the worst you’re going to get tonight, you’re very mistaken.” It wasn’t until that moment Sam noticed Ricky holding a small paper bag with the mouth of a bottle peeking out. They continued to bicker, to Sam’s amusement, in a way she thought was comical. The longer they went, the more she approached a sense of ease and the more she started to anticipate the night. When they stopped the three of them all looked to the road where someone had begun franticly honking. “We’re walking. Obviously,” said Evan, “it’s going to be hell pulling out of here later. Actually, now that I think about it, how are you going to get home? Are you just going to leave your car here? Maybe you should have taken the bus.” “I don’t take the bus,” Sam responded. “Why not?” “I hate it. I’ll call a taxi later.” She watched Evan pull out his phone and check the time, then waited a few seconds while no one said anything. “Should we go?” Evan shook his head. “Well, we were supposed to, but we’re waiting for someone. Some two I guess. Friends.” Sam was suddenly and once again dismayed. “There are more people coming?” “Yeah, actually it was him and her who asked us to go out before I got in touch with you. Sorry, but they’re fun people sometimes. I’ve just known them for a long time is all. Her more than him.” Evan looked back at his phone. “They’ll be here soon. Do you mind at all?” “I guess not.” Sam thought to herself that maybe going out was a mistake, wondering if Evan would be busy and preoccupied with others around. Maybe she could have made plans for another time, when he was alone. Maybe he could have gone somewhere quiet with her. She knew she would not leave, however. She did not yet think her night ruined. In a way, she was simply happy to see her friend, but beyond those sentimental feelings which prompted her to come out, she also felt bound by a mix of habitual inertia and timidity. As Evan predicted, soon enough a car pulled up and into the stall next to Sam’s. A young man climbed out and then approached the three of them. “Hello hello,” he said as he came close. “Well hello Kyle,” said Evan. Kyle nodded at Ricky who returned another crooked smile. Sam looked him over while he was greeting the twins. He seemed like a remarkably ordinary man, the sort who you might look at in public without ever actually registering, and the sort who might be forgotten just as quick as they had passed by, but Sam couldn’t help but see a certain pride in his bearing. “Sam, this is Kyle.” He turned to her. “Hi,” she said. “Nice to meet you.” He met her eyes and smiled. Sam quickly turned her eyes away and back to Evan. She felt the same discomfort as she did with Ricky only a small while prior, so she did not say much while the three men spoke. “Where’s Lisa?” Evan asked Kyle, and in response, he sighed. “She’s gunna come meet us at the bar. She’s busy with… some shit, I don’t know. But she’s just gunna come later. That’s all I got out of her.” His tone was salted with indifference and a small bitterness only Sam seemed to recognize. She kept him in her periphery and felt as if he was looking her over, carefully inferring it from the mild movement she noticed in corner of her eye, like a skittish animal might, unwilling to look at threat head-on. After feeling as though one of his movements was evidence of him looking at her, she threw a quick glance at him. As it happened, he was looking at her with sidelong eyes just as she thought he was. Their eyes met for only a split second before Sam broke away nervously. The three men continued to talk leisurely until whatever they were talking about had exhausted itself. “Well I suppose we should head out,” said Evan. Ricky craned his head back to pour the remnants of his bottle into his mouth then tossed it into a neighbors nearby blue bin.
The pub was as chaotic as Marlo had predicted. It was warmer than outside and the density of the bodies made the air thick and stifling, like the air itself was there to be drunk. Everywhere Sam looked were laughing, tinted faces with flush complexions. The cacophony of voices and the underlying swell of music submerged both the crowd and their sense. Sam, who was not at all a drinker, was apprehensive in confrontation with the place, as it was a place that seemed just as unpleasant and overbearing as the unwelcome comradery that she felt was typical of the drunk. The few words and phrases she could pluck from the noise were crass and masculine, like the shouted but casual curses that came from the men crowded around the pool tables, accented by the aggressive snap of the glossy pool-balls colliding. The only other distinguishable facet she could make out in that hazy boiler pot of spirits came from the VLT’s near the back, ringing and celebrating small victories. Those who occupied the machines were all older men. They worked the handles and buttons, and the bright displays cast unflattering light on their faces, revealing the creases and stress-lines of age, while scantily costumed women would show up on the screens and usher them into their next play. Evan pulled at Sam’s hand, guiding her and the others to a table where another group of four were standing up to leave. He had seen a server walking away with the debit machine and acted to seize the table before anyone else. It was still littered with empty glasses and crumbs of some sort, and they all kept their hands at their sides until a server came with a damp towel to wipe the table down and collect the glasses. Sam lifted and put down her feet a few times, as the floor was sticky and she felt some strange satisfaction in the sensation of peeling her shoes off the ground. They all waited for the server to find her way back to them so they could have their drinks. Sam sat next to Evan with Ricky and Kyle opposite them. Sam watched Kyle say something to Ricky, leaning into him so he could be heard, and Ricky grinned in amusement. She turned to Evan who tilted his head at her, and she struggled to think of something to say. “I never come to places like this,” she said in his ear. She looked around to see men from different places looking her over. “I’m sorry Sam,” replied Evan, “We won’t stay for too long. We’ll leave an hour before the fireworks so we can find somewhere nice to sit. Ricky wanted to get drunk. Lisa and Kyle go out often, I think. If anyone wants to keep drinking we can stop by the store.” “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to complain, I just meant I don’t usually come to places like this.” Sam could not hide the tension in her face. She was being watched, sized up, and for a moment was even excited to feel some small semblance of her own influence, as she sometimes did when she went out, but as soon as she recognized that excitement, she recoiled internally and looked down in self-contempt; it was a familiar routine that would often follow such, in her mind, dishonest feelings. She pulled upon her sweatband and felt, inside of her, the shame of what it meant; she could feel the weight of her history, etched onto her wrist and hidden. Evan gently rubbed her arm. A server approached the table to take their orders, and the men all asked for pints. Sam asked for a rum and coke. She wasn’t sure if she liked the drink, but she didn’t drink enough to have any real preferences. She turned her attention again to those across from her. Ricky was talking into Kyle’s ear and it looked like he kept interrupting himself with his own laughter. Kyle sat with a bemused expression. When Ricky had finished whatever he was saying, Kyle bent over the table to try and get Evan’s attention. Sam turned her eyes away when she saw him do so, refusing to look at him strait. She stared at the table, then looked around the pub again to see if she had kept the attention of men from other tables. She had. She lowered her head and waited for Evan to be free again, but just then the server returned. Ricky welcomed her with wide open arms. Evan and Kyle made space between them so she could set down the glasses, and they all took their drinks. Sam continued to wait for Evan's ear, but Ricky drew her attention, no more than five minutes later, when he suddenly stood and craned himself towards the entrance, putting his arm up high to signal at someone. Kyle and Evan both turned to look as a woman approached the table, and when she did, Evan stood up and they hugged. Sam was struck at the sight of her. The woman looked around, then walked over to another table that was not fully seated, asking if she could steal a chair. She brought the chair back to the table and sat at the side, in between Evan and Kyle, then she leaned into Kyle’s ear, saying something, and an unamused look came to his face. Evan turned to say something to her, gesturing at Sam with his thumb, then he turned around and spoke to Sam. “This is Lisa, she’s an old friend.” Sam looked at her and they smiled politely at each other, as they were too far apart and there was too much noise to greet formally. Getting a good look at her, now that Sam’s eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the bar, she saw someone immaculate. She felt anxious and uncomfortable, and she turned away. She looked at Ricky who, with a raised eyebrow and a smirk, bowed his head at her and lifted his glass up high, then took a long drink, causing her to stare into her own drink, fall into thought, and wait. When Sam noticed Lisa was distracted, bent forward and trying to hear something Ricky was saying to Kyle, she took the opportunity to examine her more thoroughly, and once she did, she looked at her as if she had fallen into a trance. Lisa was immensely, fiercely beautiful. Her face was refined and her eyes were steady and confident, framed with a pair of thin and sharp glasses that complimented the noble composure of her features. Sam searched her face and thought to herself that Lisa was naturally beautiful in a way she had never been. Her makeup and her dress were unassuming, but it made no difference. She looked like she could have been a model, or an ivory mannequin that had grown colour and become human. Sam had difficulty looking away. Here was a woman who she suddenly imagined could do anything, who could sway anyone, and as she watched her, she lamented as if in envy, but lacking that resentment made in envy; she only felt longing and pain. Lisa turned to her and Sam panicked, quickly pulling out her phone for something to look at, then after a moment of pretending to be engaged with it, she was struck with a strong desire to break away from the environment, but she could only shrink into herself. She wanted to distract herself, if only for a little while, and she thought of Marlo. It would settle her nerves a bit, she thought, so she brought up their text log and began typing with her thumbs. “How is your party?” She waited a full two minutes for a response, although, to her, it felt much longer. “Bumping. How is your whatever you’re doing?” “It’s loud and stuffy and it smells.” “Yea.” Sam paused before she responded, thinking about what might catch Marlo’s interest. “Do you think it’s wrong to let someone buy drinks for you if you don’t wanna talk to them?” She bent over and took the first sip of her drink, then used the straw to stir the ice cubes around as she waited to see if her bait interested Marlo at all. “For you? I don’t know. I can tell you that I certainly wouldn’t do that. I think it’s disingenuous, and I’m not that kind of person. Why? Is someone buying drinks for you?” Sam waited another minute before responding. “No.” “Then why are you asking?” Sam put her phone away and returned her focus to the table. Ricky was taking a long drink, and Sam watched as Lisa put her hand on top of Kyle’s, tapping her forefinger on his knuckles. She watched Lisa lean into Evan and start talking to him, then returned her attention to Lisa's hand. The way she rested her slim fingers on his hand almost seemed like something regal, both justifying and claiming Kyle. Hers was a consecrating touch, even in that muggy, bleak hive. Sam tried to imagine who these people were. With curiosity she turned her attention to Kyle himself. He was distracted by something Ricky was saying, but when Ricky went for his beer, Kyle noticed her eyes pointed at him. He looked back at her, and although Sam had the instinct to turn away, she steadied her eyes on his and felt a rush. When Lisa finished talking to Evan she turned back to Kyle, and he and Sam quickly broke their contact. Lisa began to talk in Kyle’s ear. He heaved his shoulders and listened to her until she finished, then he turned and said something back to her. He picked up his beer again and drank a good portion of it before she again spoke into his ear. They began a conversation in which neither of them looked pleased. She would say something and he would shake his head, then he would turn and say something back, frowning. It went on for a while as Sam periodically snuck looks at the two of them. The server emerged from the dimly lit mass of bodies and the noise and came up to their table. Sam had hardly put a notch in her drink, Evan had emptied half a pint, and Ricky and Kyle slid their empty glasses towards her, signaling her for another. When the server leaned in to ask Lisa if she wanted anything, she only shook her head and thanked her. Everyone at the table seemed to fall into a rhythm of conversation except Sam. Evan with Lisa, again, and Kyle with Ricky. As she grew ever more listless, she struggled, at an increasing rate, with her sense of being misplaced, not knowing where to turn or what to do with herself. She set her hand on top of the hand Even was resting on the table, the way she had seen Lisa do, then he pulled his hand out from under and gripped the hand she gave him. He leaned into her. “It’s impossible to talk in here, I’ll ask if everyone wants to go a bit earlier, we’ll go to the liquor store. How are you doing?” “I’m okay,” said Sam, shrugging. “I’m sorry, it’s boring for you, I know. I’ll ask okay?” Sam nodded, looking across at Lisa and feeling a gnawing discomfort. She then turned her attention to Kyle once more. Who was he next to her, she wondered, as he must have been someone, maybe someone with worth and standards and convictions, but who? Kyle noticed her and again they locked eyes. She felt exhilarated once more, and felt herself being drawn into this new-found and developing secrecy between them. Ricky then stole Kyle's attention, putting his hand on his shoulder and saying something to him. Their drinks arrived and they both pulled them close. Sam watched them talk, and she watched them drink deep, then watched as the two of them burst out laughing. After watching the men drink and jab at each other a little more, she noticed Lisa watching them as well. There was an indignant look on her face as she waited to steal Kyle’s attention back. She seemed to grow ever more impatient and eventually took out her phone. Evan still had Sam’s hand in his, and after seeing how little Sam had drank, leaned close. “You really don’t drink much do you?” Hearing him, she bent forward to suck on the straw, and then came back up. “I don’t really. I don’t like that it might make me act different.” “It’ okay, I don’t either.” “Oh.” “You know I’ve never actually been here before. I thought it would be different. I thought there might be people dancing, but no. Half of the people here look like regulars. This seems like the kind of place that has regulars.” Sam put her other hand on top of Evan’s, making a sandwich, then pulled away to take a quick look at her phone. Marlo hadn’t messaged her, and at that point Sam began to feel like she had discovered all she could in her situation. The noise no longer distracted her, and the thick air became habitable, but she still felt like she wanted to leave. She wished she could take Evan’s hand and leave with him alone. She wished that they could go out to the field, be under an open sky, and talk. But there was something else keeping her from asking, something that held her and something she could not decide to be terrible or not. After some time had passed Sam saw Lisa abandon her phone and say something to Kyle. He looked at her sideways, but then discarded whatever she had said and returned to his conversation with Ricky. Clearly annoyed, Lisa tugged on his sleeve and again spoke into his ear. His face hardened and he reluctantly turned around. He said something back to her and the two of them stood up. “I wonder what’s going on there,” said Evan, leaning into Sam. Across the table Ricky rolled his fingers along the side of his drink and beckoned Sam and his brother to come close. Sam and Evan leaned forward and Ricky spoke with a slight slur. “Love birds gettin’ pissy. I wasn’t supposed to say anything but I think they’re on the out and outs,” Ricky said, “plenty of girls in the sea, guys too, and you know what? None of it matters. See that girl over there?” He gestured towards another table. “I think she might be the love of my life. But it’s so dark in here, she probably can’t even see my physique.” He pulled back his sleeve and flexed some small, underdeveloped muscles. “This is how you communicate today. It’s just a joke. Don’t tell me I’m limp. I could be Mr. Universe if I wanted. But all my biggest muscles are on the inside, like my heart. That’s what’s important. But I could be a manly man if I wanted! I could be a monster truck.” “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” replied Evan, dryly, as the three of them were close. “Yo, you wanna talk a walk? I’d pile-drive you.” Sam turned around to see Lisa and Kyle standing at the bathroom entrances, openly arguing. She watched and thought they ought to just step outside and escape the noise, but, instead, they stood extremely close, both speaking at once. They looked like they were only picking up an argument that had already existed, something they were familiar with, and something predestined to end sourly. Lisa stopped speaking, leaving Kyle to gesture dramatically and bring them to a close. Lisa examined him for a second, then turned around and decisively left out the front entrance. Kyle started to walk back to the table and Sam and the twins made it to look like they were busy with themselves, innocent of any petty voyeurism. Evan went so far as to ask him where Lisa had gone, to which he replied “I don’t know, I guess she wasn’t feeling well so she left.” Hearing him, Sam sensed that he was merely playing along, knowing that everyone present was aware of their display, but maintaining convention and manner. He took up his drink and drained it. Evan and Ricky followed him. All three men leaned over to the center of the table, as if to jointly devise a battle plan of some sort. Sam followed them and tried to hear them all talk, but all that really came of it was an agreement to step outside for a smoke. Kyle suggested waiting for the server to come so they could have drinks waiting for them when they returned, and Evan said they could find her on their way out. “We’ll be back okay?” Evan told Sam. She nodded and watched them get up and muscle their way through the crowd. On their way out she saw Ricky stop and bother their server. He pointed back to the table and Sam, and she nodded. As soon as they left out the front door, Sam saw another group of displaced men point towards the table, and she thought quickly on how to protect it. She pulled her purse up and slid it to the center of the table as if to say it was reserved, and she hoped it was enough, for she had no other ideas. She worried someone might approach her now that she was on her own, but she also felt some sense of purpose in her job as the table guardian. It was the only real purpose she had served all night. The server caught her off guard when she came to set down the men's drinks. She stretched forward and asked Sam how she was doing, to which she responded by smiling at her and bending over to suck on her straw. After she was left alone again, Sam began to wonder if anything would be easier if she actually committed herself to her drink. Even just a little alcohol had its way with her, as her body was small and her tolerance non-existent. If she drank, perhaps she could find some courage in the way she understood was common. She finished her drink quick and waited. She looked around and again saw men rise and meet her gaze as she discovered them. The skin she lived in could never satisfy her the way she thought it could such men, who only ever saw her with intent and without fair scrutiny. Undiscerning men who only revealed their lack of self-respect when they eyed her, like she thought so many men did. She began to think about her father, a limitlessly kind and cautious man who knew her in a way no one else ever would. She did not have any clear memories of her mother, only hazy images from an undeveloped age, but she knew her father to be loyal beyond death, never seeking romance and content to never more. Of course, there are rarely such simple explanations, but she liked to believe it. Was she not drawn out that night by the promise of long lost company, she would’ve been nestled beside him, watching reality T.V. or docudramas under a blanket until the fireworks started. She turned to check if the men had come back just as they returned through the door, with Kyle leading the twins through the crowd. When they reached the table, Sam was overtaken by panic as Kyle took the seat next to her. Evan bent over to protest but his brother pulled him away and he submitted, shrugging and mouthing “whatever.” Sam was thrown in such a way that she could do nothing but look downward. Kyle acted as if nothing had changed and nothing would occur that wasn’t already in motion. He sat forward with his elbows resting on the table and his arms crossed, and Sam kept him in her periphery. She moved around a bit in her seat, split on the paper-thin verge that sometimes disappears between fear and excitement. The men all took up their drinks and drank. Sam gripped her empty cup and thought about her placement. Having this man close to her brought butterflies to her stomach, and she waited in anticipation for something, anything, to happen. She waited in that painful anticipation until she could not bear it, then turned her head to face him. He was drinking his beer with large, steady gulps, but he noticed her nonetheless. His face had taken on a slight red hue, and she saw his glassy green eyes become narrow and intimidating. He set down his drink and they watched each other wordlessly until he leaned a little closer and spoke. “Ricky says you’re an old friend of Evan’s from high school. I went to the same high school as those guys, but I don’t recognize you.” “I dropped out.” “I was there all three years. I think I would have remembered you.” “Oh.” “Can I get you another drink?” Sam squirmed a bit in her seat. “Okay.” “You’re very quiet, aren’t you.” “I guess.” “It’s okay, talk isn’t the end all of communication.” Sam raised her eyes to his once more and they locked together as if magnetized. Sam turned away, and from across the table she saw Evan watching them in consternation. He leaned forward and tapped Kyle’s hand to get his attention, and then he switched seats to the side of the table where Lisa had been sitting. He spoke to Kyle and Sam watched them with curiosity, wondering what could have warranted Evan changing seats to be closer to Kyle. While coupled in that conversation, Kyle surreptitiously moved his hand and placed it on top of Sam’s thigh, sliding his fingers, then his palm, up and down the length of her jeans, occasionally and boldly running it close to her upper, inner thigh. Sam felt vibrant and alive, feeling all the risk of such a secret, hidden act. Her breath became shallow, and she felt the tempo of her heart accelerating. Kyle removed his hand and picked up his glass. Evan made a motion with his hand to Sam, beckoning her to come closer, so she leaned over the table as best she could. “How are you doing?” he asked. “I’m okay.” “Are you sure?” Sam nodded in response and returned to her seat. Across from Sam, Ricky looked both bored and annoyed that no one was paying attention to him. He bent over the table and spoke loudly so that everyone would hear him. “Let’s leave this place, I’m getting kind of sick of it. Let’s go to the liquor store and be outside. I’m done with this place.” “Let’s finish our drinks at the very least,” shouted Kyle. “Well obviously.” For a reason Sam did not want to explore, there was a fresh sense of apprehension she had towards the idea of leaving, despite feeling the opposite only a little while earlier. As much as the environment had worn on her through the night, she felt, at that moment, that new prospects had emerged and their leaving came too soon. There was something unfinished, something all the noise and movement disguised that would be taken away by the clarity of the outside world. Her thoughts progressed in this manner, wondering what would happen now, and she came to the conclusion that if they were going to leave, she wanted a minute to readjust herself and ease her back into the night. Her mind was pulled in different directions. She just wanted to be alone, but then she didn’t. Now that they planned on leaving, she needed to get away from everyone and everything, or she needed, at the very least, a brief reprieve from the momentum of her senses and desires. She stood up and walked over to Evan, and in his ear, she told him that she wanted to go get some fresh air while the rest of them finished up. He nodded and brushed her arm. It had become dark outside, and quite a few patrons had spilled out of the pub and onto the road. Most of them were smoking and interrupting one another. She could see across the parking lot to Lochwood park where an expansive crowd flooded the field. Many were sitting on the grass. Only children were up and playing, weaving in-between different groups and chasing after one another. Around the corner of the bar, Sam found a somewhat isolated space where she could be alone, and she leaned herself up against a metal grating that sectioned off some outdoor furnishings that the pub had failed to set up. She hung her head. She checked her phone to see if Marlo had texted her but saw nothing. Sam thought about Marlo’s night, then began to compare and contrast her own night against what she thought Marlo’s party would have been like. She did not know how to feel, and she pulled at the sweatband on her wrist. Kyle walked around the corner to where she was hidden and approached her. Sam froze. He looked a bit more drunk than he had inside. “I was hoping to catch you alone,” he said. Sam said nothing. Kyle ran his hand down her arm and cupped his hand on her hip, drawing himself a little close. He lifted one of his hands and brushed some hair off her cheek. Sam felt electricity run through her in a sharp and pleasant way. She stood still. Kyle came more forward. She felt another jolt, but it came too quickly and too strongly, and she recoiled from it. She did not understand exactly what was happening, but every touch filled her with disgust. Her stomach turned over and her mind fell into disorder. Who was this stranger? She tried to shake his hands off her and protested. “No,” she said, twisting uncomfortably. Kyle gripped one of her free hands and pushed it back against the grate with some force. “No, stop it.” He released her and took a step backwards, confusion contorting his face. Sam stepped quickly back around to the front. She deftly weaved her way around the bodies that filled the bar in a way she would have never done were she not driven by some sense of urgency. She came up to the table where Evan was talking to his brother plainly. Ricky looked as though he was not paying attention, waiting for his turn to interject. Sam tapped Evan on the shoulder and leaned towards him. “I’m sorry, my dad called me and there was kind of an emergency and I have to leave early. I’m sorry.” “What? What happened?” “It’s just an emergency that I have to go and see my dad, I’ll tell you later.” “Sam, are you okay? You can’t tell me what happened?” She didn’t answer his question, and as he waited, she saw a sudden spark of anger come to his eyes, as if in revelation. “I just have to go. I’m sorry.” She stood back up and was about to leave when Evan tugged on her sleeve. “Wait.” Evan stood up. He wrapped his arms around her and she let her weight press against him, bringing her arms around him and holding him tightly, nuzzling her face in his shoulder. When they released each other, she gave Evan a look of regret before turning and walking away, leaving him standing there. She didn’t have a straight plan, only wanting to escape, only hoping to find a taxi somewhere without having to phone for one, and luckily enough, there were a number of taxis interspersed across the parking lot which she had not noticed when she last stepped outside. She passed Kyle on her way out, throwing him a distressed look and seeing him purse his lips. She didn’t even know how to regard him, so she went quickly out to an unreserved car. She knew he was watching her leave even when her back was turned to him.
She was driven past the open park where jubilation massed. The taxi made the trip easy enough, pulling onto the back streets of a nearby neighborhood as to avoid the traffic and crowds. When Sam arrived at her house she entered unceremoniously and kicked off her shoes. She headed for her room, desperate to be alone. She passed her father in the living room where he was watching T.V., and he called to her as she tried to slip past his notice. She explained that she was not feeling well and that was why she had come home so early, and with unspoken suspicion, he furrowed his brow, watching her walk away and to her room. On her own at last, she crawled onto her bed and buried her face deep into a pillow. She sat back upright believing it would help her think more clearly, but reflecting on what had happened proved too painful, so she pushed her face back down into the pillow and started to cry, her tears coming easily. She wept for herself, her physicality, the vanity to which she submitted, and the imprisonment she faced due to such anxieties, which, in turn, led to the unjust guilt for her desires, her instincts, her baseness, and even her sex, in the collective of whom she believed herself assuredly, particularly warped. When she stopped crying, she wiped her face on the pillow, wiping her makeup all over it, then laid unmoving for a while. She stood up and walked to the full body mirror that hung on her wall. She stood there, looking at herself and the makeup smeared all over as if her face were the focal point of some abstract portrait. She turned this and that way, trying to see her figure. The blouse she had worn was wide at the neck, and the sight of her collar bone disturbed her, for it was much too pronounced. She grew sick of herself and went back to lie on her bed. She stayed there until her restless mind got the better of her once again, and so, on top of her sheets, she wriggled her way out of her clothes, even taking off her sweatband and throwing it in the corner of the room. She stood back up in front of the mirror naked. She bent, she twisted, she pulled in and pushed out, moving her head to keep a clean line of sight, trying to see herself from the back side, and then she started to cry once again, her face a mess and her body unnatural. She stood there for a while with her face pressed into her hands. Then came the climax of the night with the popping of ribbons that were somewhere over and beyond the houses of her neighborhood. She imagined them diving up in the sky. The sounds, the hissing and the whistling, encroached on her; a celebration meant for others, not herself. She moved to close her open window and mute the noise. She grew tired and went to lay down in bed, but she tossed and turned for hours before she was able to sleep.
When she woke up in the morning, she was numb to the mix of self-pity and self-loathing that had carried her off to sleep. It took her a while to summon the motivation to climb out of bed and find some pajamas to dress herself with. She felt drained, and went over the events of her night out in a slight stupor, as if they had not happened to her, but someone else. There was a coldness in her heart that whispered to her, reminding her who she was. After laying back down for a while longer, she began to feel restless, so she went to find where she had tossed her phone, somewhere in her pile of cloths that she had cast off that previous night. She found it, dialed Marlo’s number, and put the phone to her ear. It rang four times before Marlo picked up. “So, how was your night?” Marlo asked as she answered. “I don’t know, how was yours?” “It was fine, got kind of drunk and sat around until the fireworks, then started a fire in the backyard and sat around that for a while. What do you mean you don’t know?” “I just don’t know.” “Did something happen?” “I don’t know, I just-” “Yeah?” Sam was quiet, and she waited for a few moments before she responded. “I had a couple drinks, and I think too many, and…” “And what? What happened?” “Evan had one of his friends come, and his friend came with his girlfriend. They got in a fight and she left. And then, I guess I just had too many drinks and I went to his place and I slept with him after.” “Wow.” Marlo sighed deeply, as if in great disappointment, but Sam recognized a familiar sense of satisfaction in her breath.