A couple days later, I was at an early meeting. I’d had to mix up my schedule now that the evenings weren’t always so available. My SHitS nights were down to one a week, and I’d had to check off my boxes by going to the other halfway house (yes, two) way down on the south side of town, and a noon meeting I’d heard about at the library, which was where I had driven to that morning. I’d thought about just heading over to Kirsten’s House, but more and more, the less we saw or texted one another, the more I was starting to wonder if she wasn’t filling some other role for me I hadn’t been able to pinpoint yet. Whether it was three weeks or three days, the rollercoaster was always the same, but I’d been trying to add her and I to my List of
New Things to sincerely try and think about.
The good thing about this library meeting, other than being at the library, which was basically the only place in town I ever went anyway, was that it was a reading meeting. As in, much more highly organized. They would read out of one of the official books or magazines, breaking the text up into little chunks, depending on when the person reading got tired of it, or if they weren’t very good at reading. Then from that point, discussion would just work its way around the table till it got back to the beginning. And then you were done. More often than not, there wouldn’t be enough time for everybody to talk, which initially made me want to sit right up next to the people leading the meeting. But, there was no rhyme or reason to whether the meeting was going to go clockwise or counter, so I always ended up almost directly across from the head table. It pretty much guaranteed I would have to say something (I’d been around long enough I didn’t feel like I had the “pass” option anymore), but it also meant I would have almost half an hour to think of something to say. If I was lucky I could just piggyback on someone else’s comment, not really saying anything, but rewording it and sort of building up what they said like it was incredibly smart. It would’ve been smarter, really, to just sit by the leader and I’d either have to read something easy, or never have to talk. But, for an unresolved reason, the foot of the table seemed more fitting for me. Or something.
The group here was a little more hit or miss, but the general core of it seemed to be a lot of moms, which to be honest, I hadn’t thought of that as a character-type Arden had. The desperate housewife who would lock herself in a hotel room with a box of wine, unplug the phone and just hide for a weekend blackout or relapse. I don’t know if I was more or less comfortable with this. I probably sort of hoped they would play a mom-type of role, dote on me a little, and mostly just let me slide. But there were also a handful of the real, true old-timers, the guys that were pushing or past seventy, who had been in the program for decades and yet still came to meetings five or six times a week. These guys, among other things, had exceptional bullshit radars. And they were also old enough to not care if they hurt your feelings. I sometimes got the impression it was also a bit of a joy for them to “cut to the chase,” or “give it to [guys like me] straight.” They “didn’t pull punches.” Whatever phrase you want to put in there. But then again, if I had to be honest, if I’m ever old, I’ll probably do the same thing to kids. It’s sort of expected, I feel like.
Back on my side of the circle that day, there were a couple of younger moms, old guys sidled up next to them and being weirdly gentlemanly. Maybe you don’t pick up people at meetings, but sometimes it felt like things were a little too flirty, a little too desperate for just a wise old man helping a poor young lady. But looking at the pairs on either side of me, I probably would have thought that anywhere.
Just before they called the meeting to order, the door opened and Kirsten slipped in, a water bottle tucked under one arm, a phone and her sign-in sheet in her hand. She glanced around the room quickly, unsure, and then took the first open seat she came to, just a few spots inside the door. I rubbed the back of my head and looked down, smiling a little in spite of my supposed new-found resolve, and hoping it looked a little more like a grin, or a half-smirk. The number one rule with prisoners, and apparently addicts I’d begun to think, is “don’t ever let anybody know too much about you.” The last thing I needed was some old man catching me in an expression and then bringing it up in front of God and everybody.
While they began the usual opening statements, the reader position worked its way around the table on the left side of me. I flipped through the book, counting pages and paragraphs, trying to run a quick calculation on whether I’d get to just read from the book and count that as my turn, or if I’d actually have to talk. It was going to be close. The donation and prison fund baskets started in the opposite direction, passing Kirsten early and giving her a moment to look around as she passed them along. She caught my eye across the room and smiled, her hands quickly moving under the table. From where I was sitting I could see her tapping away on her phone screen as she looked with little discretion down at her lap.
Thankfully, I had my phone silenced and in my pocket, because when I checked it a few minutes later, I had a new message.
I smiled and glanced at the old men on either side of me. One seemed to be nodding off, although on closer inspection he was silently mumbling the words to the required readings under his breath. The other was skimming ahead in the book.
I scooted my chair back and leaned forward, shielding my phone between my legs and halfway under the table. “Hey you,” I typed. “Long time no see.”
Being able to see her while we talked, but never actually talking, I couldn’t decide if this made things better or worse. At least this way I knew she was getting my messages. For sixty minutes I wouldn’t have to wonder what she was doing, where she was, if I was being ignored for a good or a bad reason.
“I’m not hard to find,” she wrote back a minute later. “You should come spring me some time.”
I checked the room. They were reading from the actual book now, about half a dozen people away from me. The chapter for the day was short, as they all tended to be. Clearly the books were written with the limited attention span of someone newly sober in mind. It looked more and more like I was going to have to talk instead of just recite.
“You’re harder to track down than you think,” I wrote. “I can’t hardly keep up with you.”
Almost immediately, “In the bedroom, I’m sure you can’t.”
I glanced at her. She smiled just a little but was doing an impressive job of appearing to pay attention. Her provided copy of the book was in front of her, open, and she almost seemed to be following along between glances around the room, occasionally at me.
“You might be surprised,” I wrote, feeling like two could play this game. Especially since, as far as the immediate future was concerned, there would be no need to back up this bragging.
I looked up again. Misty was a couple seats down, on the other side of the old man on my left. I had two people till I was up, and the old man would surely carry the section to its end. I didn’t know the next person in line, so he was an uncertainty, but my hope was the old man would read, and then talk too. Sometimes they did that.
My phone lit up in my hand. “Why don’t you prove it?”
I tucked my phone back in my pocket, attempting to rapidly scan through the last page of the reading, looking for a phrase or sentence I could latch onto. One thing I had learned was, you either needed to just generally agree with the old guys, or say something completely unrelated. They didn’t care for brown-nosing, and anything with any more than a whiff of assent was seen as brown-nosing.
The old man finished up, said a few words about Bill W. and the beginnings of the program, maybe just to show that he knew it, and then, as I’d feared, looked to me.
Everyone looked to me.
I looked at my hands for a moment, “thinking,” then just blindly jumped in.
I started, introducing myself with the normal phrasing, grabbed my cap off the table, toyed with it for a second, put it on, a nervous-gesture meant to imply comfort. I don’t know if it worked, really. It probably looked more like I was trying to hide.
“I think the interesting thing about these readings is how they always seem to offer something different each time I come across them. I know this one isn’t exactly about what I was thinking, but it led me down a path, and you know how good we all are at running down those mental paths.” Polite laughter. “I guess maybe what I was thinking, while all you guys were reading I mean, is how thankful I am that this exists. It talked in here about community. I know that wasn’t the point, but I was interested at how that word is just thrown in there with such lack of emphasis. Like, it’s just assumed that we will all come together and try to help each other. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve ever seen that happen. I mean, of course there’s the idea of communism…” I waited for a laugh, but the room stayed silent, either confused, hostile, or bored already. “But what I mean is, it’s really, like, a comfort to me to come here. And yeah, I don’t know all you guys, but at the same time I know I’m in a room full of people who are willing to let me sit here and ramble about nonsense if that’s what I need to do. I’m not saying my words are worth anything, but this place provides something I didn’t have before. Just people who listen. I guess that’s what all my psychs were supposed to do,” I laughed, “but it doesn’t feel the same when you’re paying someone to do it. Like, who knows what they’re doodling on their pads, yknow?” I paused for a second, having lost myself in trying to think of “communal” things everybody could relate to, but without having to actually say anything real.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I know I’m not really adding anything, and I’m probably way off the mark, as far as the reading goes, but that was the thing that struck me. The way we all come here and, not that we take it for granted, but that this community is just assumed. It’s really neat and like, calming, I guess. I’m glad that you guys are here, even if I don’t really talk much. It’s a peaceful feeling. And I’m just trying to be aware of how lucky I am to have that,” I paused again, thinking. “And that’s all I got, I guess.”
I looked down at the floor for a minute, never really comfortable with this place, never really wanting to hear the “Thanks, Cole” because sometimes these people said it like they really meant it. And who knows, maybe they did. But it takes an incredible amount of confidence to be sober, which is, of course, what one never had in the first place.
Unexpectedly, after a surprise pass from my other elderly neighbor, the next lady piggybacked off me, saying that she was so glad I had said what I said. She’d fallen into the solitude, and all it entails and can imply for people like us, and she was really needing to hear something like that today— a way to be thankful for the smaller things.
I looked over at her and smiled a little, but mostly wanting the next person to hurry up and say something so people could start forgetting I was there. Every once in a while, someone would pull you aside after a meeting and thank you for what you’d said. That was even worse, especially since it was basically all off the cuff nonsense that I didn’t know if I actually believed, but that I knew sounded appropriate for the setting.
I waited for a few more people to talk and then, when the attention was a few degrees around the circle away from me, I swiped my phone on again.
“Ugh, I hate talking. Haha.” Send.
Kirsten seemed to be caught up in the pre-talk planning, although, glancing at the time and the amount of people between her and the talker, it looked like she was going to escape the spotlight.
I listened to the next person go. She seemed to be kind of new, or maybe just back after a break. Most of what she said didn’t really apply to the book either. It was mostly the incredibly personal things people tend to share when they’re an emotional wreck from dealing with the worst sides of themselves for a little while.
It always made me uncomfortable, like they didn’t know the rule. Although, I thought, that was one really, truly good thing about the community; there were plenty of other women here who would be able to listen and relate and talk to her about a thousand things that I would just stumble over and crumple up if I tried to actually help this lady. The problem with being the odd duck is that community doesn’t really work so well for you.
I looked down at my phone again, scanning through the last few months of messages from Kirsten. As always, it struck me to see such a surprisingly small number. I flicked past the picture she’d sent, the possible nude, quickly, and then opened the keypad again.
“Funny you should mention hanging out, my folks are on vacation and I’ve got the house to myself for two weeks.” Send.
Then almost immediately, “I know that sounds really junior high. Haha. But I will probably need somebody to take care of me, y’know?” Send.
I wasn’t impressed with the wording. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed with the timing, or the sentiment, or the fact that I was playing while I should have, at the very least, been trying to be respectful. I put my phone back in my pocket, still staring at the floor, but resolved to not sit there tossing these people to the side for a game.
The talking position made its way around the group, stopping one person short of Kirsten.
The lady heading the meeting looked at her, “There’s no rule on time really, if you want to say anything. Feel free.”
Kirsten smiled back, a killer, beautiful, sweet smile. “Oh, no thank you. I’m just glad I got to listen.”
“Okay,” the woman said, sorting through the papers on the table to find the final reading.
As she began, everyone else started the end-of-meeting shuffle, placing keys and phones and such back in their pockets, sliding the books down the tables to be stacked and filed away in a closet somewhere with the rest of the meeting materials.
“And we’ll close in the usual way,” the woman said.
I tossed my cap on the table and joined hands with the guys on either side of me, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and looking at my feet.
While everyone began to file out, I tried to slip between the pairs of conversation, between the chairs and the wall, around the circle the opposite way from Kirsten. I didn’t want to look like I was running after her, especially here. Somewhere in the mix I lost track of her, but she was waiting in the lobby when I came out, chatting with one of the women who helped lead the meeting.
She smiled over at me as I headed for the exit. I walked out the automatic doors and back into the sun, trying to not hurry, but also realizing I didn’t know what to say to her in real life. I was halfway to the truck when I heard her behind me.
“Hey, you trying to escape or what?”
I turned around, walking a little bit backwards, but slowing down so she could catch up. “Oh, no. I was just...I thought you were talking to that lady.”
“Uh-huh. So this is where you’ve been hiding, is it? I haven’t seen you in forever.” She caught up and, almost, slipped her arm through mine. At the last second she seemed to think better of it.
“Yeah. Or no. I started working for the parks, so I had to kind of mix things up. I haven’t seen you around much either, my dear.”
“Ugh,” she looked up. “I can’t even...like, these past few months have been total hell, you know? I missed you though. Are you just never gonna visit me, or what?”
We had reached the truck already. I leaned on the hood, looking back toward the entrance where little groups of meeting members were standing around, waiting on rides or just catching up. This was probably the most normal-looking group I attended. Or maybe it was just the setting. Where else would a bunch of young mothers and old men be in the middle of a workday? There wasn’t much in Arden besides the library.
“I was thinking the same thing about you,” I said. “You gonna come keep me company?”
“And when would this be, sir?”
“Anytime. Well outside work I mean.”
“I thought you lived with people.”
I was confused. “Yeah, I do, but...did you not get that text? About this two weeks?”
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and swiped it open, leaning back beside me. “Oh. Well, yes, now I did. This phone is a piece of garbage sometimes.”
I immediately felt like the dumbest person in a 10-block radius. The one thing I didn’t consider during the last three months of nightly anxiety sessions. But why go for the most logical solution when you can think up a million more heinous and outlandish ones to stew on.
I almost laughed, but caught myself. I didn’t want to make her feel bad about her phone. “That sucks, man. But, hey at least we got it figured out.”
“I guess,” she started, then suddenly glanced up, grinning, and slapped me in the arm. “Two weeks you say? Sounds to me like I’m getting a late invite. Had to get your other ladies there the first four days huh?”
“Riiight,” I laughed, suddenly light-hearted and enjoying getting to play and tease and flirt with her. Like regular people. “You know me. People are just breaking down the door to get with a barely employed guy that lives with his parents.”
“I’d break the door down to get with you.” She looked me right in the eye when she said it, then actually winked. I hadn’t ever seen a person do that in real life. She never ceased to amaze me with her transformation from shy to sultry, polite to pouncing.
“I don’t know if my parents would like that,” I laughed. “I can just let you in. You should come over though. I have to work nights till eleven, so I don’t get back till maybe half-past, but you could meet me there, or,” I suddenly remembered where she lived. “I guess I don’t know what your schedule is like. I have Tuesdays and Wednesdays totally free most weeks. I usually go to the SHitS on Tuesday, but we could skip it, or you could come with, or something. It’s not like they don’t know you already.”
She was looking at her phone again. “Very true,” she looked back up at me, tucking it in her back pocket. “You should let me know when this little hangout can happen. It’d be good to see you out of these meetings. And out of a few other things,” she laid her hand on my arm. “But I gotta run. My ride’s gonna be here in a second. Give me a hug.”
I slipped my hands around her waist. Even without the drugs, there couldn’t have ever been much to her. She had her forearm around my neck, the hand with the water bottle hanging to the side, making everything (I hoped) seem a little more platonic than it probably looked. For a minute though, briefly, it almost did feel platonic. It was a hug that felt more like clinging, and I began to remember why I had started talking to her in the first place. I hadn’t been hugged, really truly held onto, in so long. I didn’t know about her, but it felt like she didn’t want to ever let go. Like she was just happy I existed.
She loosened up after a minute, glanced behind her, and then gave me a fast, brushing kiss on the check. “Keep me posted on that house, sir,” she said, turning and walking back toward the groups at the front of the library.
“Of course.” I unlocked the truck, watching her walk away. She turned back briefly, waved, blew a two-finger kiss. I smiled. She was something all right. I climbed in the truck and drove home. I needed to get ready for work.
A week later I was making the same drive, having not heard a word out of the girl.
“And it’s not like I wasn’t trying to be nice, y’know?” I was telling the meeting-hug story, heavily edited, to Rebekah. “I mean, you’d think somebody would jump at the chance to get out of that halfway house, or whatever you call it. Like, good grief, can one simple thing go right in this shitty life?”
In spite of Kirsten’s silence, Rebekah and I had spent our common work evenings talking quite a bit. After a record high summer temp one day, one which happened to coincide with a group of campers who seemed intent on destroying every possible facet of the bathroom, trash cans, playground, picnic shelters, you name it, I’d collapsed into the spare chair in the shack, filthy, sticky, and I’m sure more than a little smelly. She’d started to joke, but seeing I wasn’t in any mood, deftly altered course and unwittingly set herself up for a rant, which, in hindsight I’ve gotta say, she handled impressively well. Or at least as well as one girl can when she’s listening to someone gripe about another girl and then bitch about themselves. Gritching, I guess. I was full-gritch ahead.
I’ll spare you the totality (a courtesy I should’ve given her). The gist was something along the lines of “And beyond all the stuff with that chick, which I don’t even know what to do there anymore, the worst part is, like, haven’t you ever wondered why I spend all my time picking up other people’s literal shit? For my job? I went to fucking college for crying out loud. I should have a master’s or a doctorate or something by now, and instead I’m picking up actual pieces of shit because, I don’t know, apparently it’s funny to miss the toilet? Or like, wipe it on the walls? People wipe shit on the walls here, and in all my brilliance, I have arranged my life in such a way that the actual best job, the only job I can get is cleaning that shit off the walls. But not for enough money to even live on my own. So even if by some miracle this girl really was somehow actually interested, how long do you think she’d last when I started talking? Like, truthfully?” (I winced at the implications in the last phrase, but she seemed to let it slide.)
She’d said, “I feel like I’ve done pretty well,” but I barrelled over it, the comment not ever really registering at the time.
“An hour? Sixty minutes? I guess it doesn’t really matter anyway, because instead of being normal, I get to go to these fucking meetings and live in the fucking basement and clean up shit. It’s a real rags-to-riches story.”
This probably isn’t exact, but it was something real classy along those lines..
She tried to cheer me up, once. “It could be worse, Cole. You’ve got a house, a car, and a clean record. In this town, you’re gold. Something will turn up..”
I’d laughed. “DOC# 265387. At your service.”
She’d looked at me. “Oh.”
“It was a bit ago,” I’d said. “Besides, how did you not figure this out? Didn’t you think it was weird I go to AA meetings all the damn time?”
“Not really. I guess I never thought about it. I just thought you were going because, I don’t know, you thought it was good for you or something.”
“No, Rebekah. No. Why would—?” I laughed, “You really think I’m that responsible? Jiminy, girl, I think you might be the one under a spell.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“I’m not, I’m just… I don’t know; I mean it’s flattering and all, in some twisted way I guess. But, dang man, I’m starting to wonder if you even listen.”
“I know I’ve heard about enough so far. I was just trying to help.”
“Well, I mean, it’s fine. Whatever. That’s nice. Fuck, for all I know, maybe my weird traitorous mind is right. I ought to be trying to help this girl like I kept claiming in the first place. I could at least probably teach her to gain the confidence and good sense to stay the hell away from somebody like me.”
She sat for a moment, looking at me. Then, “Wow, Cole. Just, wow. You skipped past the bargain basement self-pity and went straight for the black market version today, didn’t you?”
“What? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“I think right now would be a good time for you to hop on your little cart and take a spin around the park. I believe one or both of us is real close to saying something we oughtn’t.”
I grabbed my hat off the desk. “Fuckin’... fine. Whatever. I shouldn’t have brought any of it up anyway. I’m just being a dick.”
The rest of the shift was basically me stewing in my own bullcrap in various places around the park, at one point actually kicking rocks while waiting for the night to end. Waiting to just go back to a house where no one was.
Somehow, at the time, I was caught up in myself enough that I didn’t take the time to even consider how much I should’ve been listening instead of talking. That didn’t happen till the drive home, and then kept pounding in my head most of the night.
The next afternoon she’d radioed me up to the shack and gave me a very proper mom talk about how she was sorry to hear it, that she didn’t want to be there either, but that I was actually the only thing that made it worth working there. But the job would end. Things are always changing. She wasn’t proud of herself either all the time, and I could either deal with my past or not. But when my boxes were checked, I was done. Her choices would follow her the rest of her life. “For better or for worse, I’m learning, doesn’t mean you always do those things together,” she’d said.
And after that, I’d started thinking a lot more about this girl being an actual friend.
Which, with what I hope was genuine humility and maybe my first real attempt at asking for help, brought us yet again to the Kirsten situation. Rebekah was pretty clearly biting her tongue through a large part of my complaints and noble arguments, but putting up a seriously admirable effort. I’m pretty sure she didn’t buy even half as much as I had when I’d been trying to convince myself all summer
“Maybe you’re better off,” she said.
“Oh, it’s not like that,” I said. “I came off wrong yesterday. I don’t mean I’m trying to like, get with her, specifically. It’s just girls in general.”
“I see,” she cracked a little and grinned for the first time. “You just want to get with any girl in general. Well surely that can’t be too terribly difficult.”
“Funny. You know what I mean, missy mae. I guess the thing is, it’s weird when you’re trying to help someone and they don’t give a crap.”
“Oooohh iiiiiissss iiiiiiit?”
I tried to give her a stern look, but was failing. “Okay, point taken. I guess maybe it’s more like, I don’t understand why she keeps saying ‘oh let’s hang out, let’s get together, why don’t you visit me?’ if she’s not wanting to actually hang out. You know? It’s not like I’m asking her out. I’m just trying to be nice. I don’t get it.”
“No, I understand. This is the ‘concrete problem’ I’ve been trying to get us to. Something we can kick around besides your self-image for a bit.”
“You’re really on it tonight, huh?”
“Hey. Pay attention. I’m saying ‘maybe you’re better off anyway.’ If this is all as above board as you’re wanting to make it sound, it only makes sense that she’d take you up on an offer. So maybe she’s not somebody you really ought to be hanging around in the first place. It just feels super shady. And bear in mind I’m not judging her; I didn’t even know she existed three months ago. I’m just giving you a general impression. And I’d keep a good distance until things became a little clearer if I were you. I feel like you’re either asking for trouble, or you’re gonna get hurt. Probably both.”
“You can say that if you want, but it doesn’t make me wrong. “
“Maybe. I don’t know. The whole thing is probably just giving me a complex or something.”
“Okay, then, let’s take your side. She really wants to hang out, but doesn’t text you back or take you up on an invitation. (We are both working on the assumption that that cell phone line was a load of shit, right? [sigh. yes.] Good. Thank you.) So, pal, what would cause her to say that? Use your Sherlock Holmes skills.”
I laughed a little. “I never could figure those out.”
“Really?” she raised an eyebrow. “Well, I could. And it seems like you’ve got two options. Either she can and she doesn’t want to, or she can’t, and she doesn’t want to tell you why.”
“That’s the thing; she seems like she wants to.” I hadn’t divulged too much on the texts, just given a basic run-down covering the highlights for my case.
“Okay. We can scrap the first option then. So if she wants to so bad, why wouldn’t she?”
“I swear, I can’t tell if you are naive or pretending to be dumb for some bizarre reason or what sometimes.” She tossed a pen she’d been fiddling with on the desk. “How did you even make it this far in life?”
“Charm and good looks?”
“That’s the thing, though, Cole. You are good-looking. You are charming, in your own way.”
“Hey, let me finish. You are charming. I love hanging out with you here. You do have about a thousand walls up, which is a discussion for a whole nother time. But look, you’re a good guy; she ought to be jumping at the chance to hang out with you. And she’s not. And since you aren’t going to pursue this idea, I’m a girl, I’ll do it.
“In my vast experience of femininity, these are the options I see. She’s either stuck in the halfway house or club or whatever you call it, and is embarrassed to say so, or she’s dating somebody else.”
I didn’t say anything for a minute, almost beginning a defense but trying my best to stay neutral, open. “I really don’t know, I guess. I don’t know how any of this works.”
“Me neither. So we can put a pin in ‘trapped’ as a best case scenario (and we’ll ignore why you don’t just go visit her for now). But that pretty much leaves option two.”
“No third option?”
“I mean, there’s always a third option. It could just be a game for her. String you along so you’re always there when she’s bored and needs amusement.”
“Maybe, I guess.”
“Or maybe she’s a spy or something. Hell, maybe she’s Spetsnaz for all we know. But I feel like until we actually learn the house rules or see her with some dude, we should probably just stick to those two for now. Especially since, I mean, one, believe it or not, I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt (if I can), and the first two choices are so much simpler. And two, how much do you even know about this girl? Maybe she is conniving, or maybe she’s just embarrassed. ‘Maybe’ covers a lot of options so I try to avoid it when I can. So with that in mind, besides the basic stuff from the meetings and all, tell me about her.”
I ticked off the ‘facts’ on my fingers, although the way she was talking, I was beginning to feel incredibly ignorant for buying into any of them. “She’s got two kids. Two boys. I don’t think she was married, but I think they have the same dad. She’s trying to get over some kind of drug thing…” I started to mention the scars and then caught myself. “You know this is against like, all the rules. The actual name of the thing has ‘Anonymous’ in it.”
“You haven’t ever said her name, though. Besides, you act like I’m not going to recognize an addict when I see one. I grew up here. And on the off-chance I do ever see this girl, wouldn’t it be better for me to think ‘hey, that’s that girl that’s trying really hard’ as opposed to what I probably would otherwise?”
“You are too smart to be here; you know that right?”
“Okay. Well, anyway, I don’t know. Those are the big things I guess. She lives at the house. I think she went to school south of here, but, no, I’m not a hundred percent sure on a lot of this. If that’s what you’re getting at.”
“I’m not ‘getting at’ anything. I’m just trying to get you to talk about something for once.”
I laughed. “And this is what you picked?”
“Hey, I wasn’t the one barging in here looking for a fight and a pity party yesterday. You might not have ever specifically said it, but this was your choice, buddy.”
“Okay. I guess that’s fair.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. If I had to guess, even if you take away every other thing you’ve told me, if you just look at the way she talks and then the way she acts, I think there’s somebody else that’s ‘helping’ her.”
There was only the slightest emphasis on the word, not quite enough to call her out on, but just enough to make her point crystal clear.
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. “You’re probably right.”
“Was that so hard?”
“It doesn’t make it any less weird.”
She laughed. “Cole! Yes it does! It makes it all the way less weird. It might make it more shitty, but it also makes it incredibly normal. People are no good.”
“Except for you of course.”
“Of course,” she said. “And you seem pretty okay too, but I don’t know yet.”
“Allll riiiight. Anything else you’d like to lord over me while we’re doing this?”
“You still owe me a kid rental,” she stood up to go greet a truck with a fishing boat in tow, “I’m not forgetting that.”
Later that night I tracked Rebekah down on Facebook and shot her a message. “Hey, not to be weird or anything, but thanks for talking to me. I think it’s taking me a minute to adjust to like, life.”
A minute later she wrote back. “It’s okay. You’re just institutionalized.”
I laughed. “Exactly. PTSD.”
The dots on the phone rolled, looking like she was typing, but they disappeared after a minute. I flicked on the tv. I was laying on the couch in my boxers, having taken a long, hot shower to try and remove as much of the garbage smell as I could. I’d started just leaving my clothes in the garage until I could wash them.
The movie channel was showing what appeared to be only sequels. “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” “Van Wilder 2: the Rise of Taj,” and “Road Trip: Beer Pong” were on the docket, according to the info channel.
I turned to Bill and Ted and opened a tab on my computer, looking up movie franchises. Personally, I’d always like “Back to the Future 2” the best for some reason. By the third part in most trilogies, it seemed like something weird had to happen. Doc and Marty go to the Wild West. The Turtles go to ancient Japan.
It seemed like you were sort of supposed to expect the second film to flop. The second book in a trilogy was usually the slow one, the one that gave you a bunch of backstory, or a completely secondary plot that sort of just postponed the third book, which would get you back to what you were wanting in the first place. I tried to think about the Rings trilogy. It’d been a long time since I’d read those, and the movies….I thought back, all of them kind of running together, at least partially because I had a hard time telling the actors apart. Or at least the ones I didn’t know already. Plus I was sort of against Elijah Wood, just on principle. For some reason.
About twenty minutes into my broad Google search for “movie sequels,” the computer chimed, letting me know I had a message. I clicked over to the other tab.
“Haha. You think I didn’t know that right away? Sorry for the pause; the littlest woke up and needed some mommy time.”
“No problem,” I typed. “You’re probably tuckered out anyway. I don’t know how you do mom and late nights working.”
“Because I’m amazing,” she wrote. Then, “But you’re right, it’s time for this girl to go to bed. Good night, Cole.”
Then, in the middle of me typing back, “And don’t worry about the talks. I’m glad you’ve decided you might actually trust me. I like talking with you. Night.”
“Might trust you, haha,” I wrote. “Sleep tight, Rebekah. See ya tomorrow.”
I waited a few more minutes for her to reply, and then went back to my googling. Catching my reflection on the screen, I was a little bit surprised to see I was smiling.
* * *
A few days later I woke up early, planning on biking before work. I’d tried to believe that if I worked a weird shift, I could just alter my day, pushing everything back so that it all “began” around noon and then went till four or five in the morning. But, given the meetings and my undying 9:30 wake time, I’d had to adapt. Instead, I tried to wake up earlier. I figured three months had set my internal alarm, so maybe if I could slowly work backwards a little closer to sunrise, it would reset things.
Thus far it hadn’t helped, but it did at least allow me to do the voluntary part of things, the bike riding or weight lifting, before I went to work. Plus, once I was there I still had to walk around and do at least a minimum of physical labor, which would hopefully enhance the effects of the exercise. Because Lord knows I wasn’t going to strap a light to the bike helmet.
I was only slightly surprised to see I had a text message waiting for me. Rebekah and I had exchanged phone numbers at work the night before and texted a little after I got home. With the little ones and all, eight am was hardly an early time for her to be awake. Especially with the little ones in the summertime.
A small part of me was still clinging to the idea that it might be Kirsten; morning texts meant I had missed her the night before, but all things considered, they were more frequent than us having a real conversation. Against my (and Rebekah’s) better judgment, I had tried to text her once or twice more, letting her know the days were counting down till my parents came back, but her side of things remained silent. And I kept that story to myself. On the plus side, opening the conversation box between her and I and only seeing a screen full of my own pathetic “hey”s and “are you alive”s was becoming more and more motivating to just put the phone back down.
This morning was a surprise however.
“Hey, I know I kind of dropped the ball on this, but I’m free today if you want to do lunch or something. Lemme know.”
I laughed. Chris.
He and I had had a (clearly) half-forgotten conversation when he and Christy had come over for dinner the night before mom and dad left for Maine. One of those “yeah we should totally get together” type things that I think slipped both our minds while the words were still vibrating the air.
I looked over at the clock, at my shoes by the dresser. It always felt cool in the basement, but the sun was shining warm already. I only had two things I was supposed to do: a meeting and work. I had two things I wanted to do: ride the bike and, now, go to lunch.
For the first time, I decided to live on the edge and go wild while mom and dad were gone.
“Yeah,” I typed. “I have to work later, so I’ll look like a scrub. I was gonna ride the bike here in a minute, but I’m good for lunch.” Send.
Almost immediately, “Great. Mexican? Noon?”
“Sounds good. See you then.”
I tossed the phone on my bed, grabbed my shorts, shoes, and radio, and wandered out to the garage.
It was hot that day. Hot enough I almost didn’t go the whole way. By this point, “the whole way” was at least ten miles farther than the course had originally entailed, but if you don’t grow, if you don’t add to what you’ve got a handle on, what are you really doing with yourself?
I got back slick with sweat, my shorts dark and dripping. I walked downstairs on rubbery legs to shower, but I didn’t feel nauseous. And I didn’t feel bad about that. Maybe things were starting to mysteriously change themselves after all. At the very least, the thought crossed my mind. I acknowledged it with a “hm,” and went on about my business.
Between the bike ride, shower, and getting my work stuff together (I decided to just change once I got there), I had about half an hour to kill.
I glanced at my phone, saw nothing from anybody, and googled “movie sequels” again. It seemed like it could be an interesting thing.
I met Chris exactly when both hands were straight up, but he was already inside, sitting at a booth and looking at the menu. It’s a secret goal in my life to be more punctual than him, but I constantly forget that he lives by dad’s rule of “if you’re on time, you’re late.”
“Hey,” I slid in across from him, telling the out-of-nowhere waiter I’d just have water.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s it going? How’s the vacation been?”
We bantered for a few minutes, ordering food, waiting for food, covering all the non-topics.
“Oh, by the way,” he said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but if I get a phone call, I’m going to have to take it.”
“That’s cool. Work stuff?”
“Kinda,” he laughed, looking as close to embarrassed as he ever did. “I’ve been thinking about investing some. Christy and I are doing all right and it seemed stupid to have money only pulling in the bank interest. So, this morning I cold called this broker on Wall Street.”
I laughed. Only Chris would have this type of idea and then actually act on it. “How’d you find him?”
“Google. I don’t think he’s gonna call back. His secretary said he was in a meeting, which was fine, but then she asked who I was and if he was expecting my call.”
“So, no on the second one. What’d you say?”
“I kinda took a card from your deck, told her to let him know I was an investor who had come into some play money and wanted to see what I could do with it.”
I grinned a little. “It’s not untrue.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I have no idea what the lingo is there, so I imagine I sounded exactly like a kid from the midwest, but it never hurts to ask, y’know?”
“I can’t say I would’ve done it, but that doesn’t mean much these days.”
He laughed, a refreshing reminder people could still do that during all this.
“So what’ve you been doing at the house?” he asked.
“Oh, y’know…” I stirred my drink. “Not a lot really. I work that weird evening shift most of the time, so usually I only have the mornings to do much. I mowed once, and probably will tomorrow again or the next day before they get back. I don’t really make much of a mess when it’s just me, so a lot of just hanging around, riding the bike. Meetings and work are pretty much my biggies.”
“Slowly chipping away though.”
I was surprised to realize it was starting to be me, not just other people, people outside it all, back-burner-ing the whole thing. Lately, I was just wanting to keep busy till it ran to some inevitable end. I wasn’t nearly as keyed up about the whole thing as I’d been at first, even if there was still a healthy amount of double- and triple-checking on my various boxes each week.
“Pretty much,” I said. “Just keep doing what I’m doing and ride it out.”
“You think anymore about what’s next?”
I shook my head a little. “No? Yes? I feel like I think about it a lot, but it’s hard to do much right now. I’m pretty well locked into these types of jobs until probation is over, and I don’t wanna shoot myself in the foot by applying somewhere while my record is garbage, and ruin my chances later. Or maybe that’s just me being lazy.”
“No that makes sense,” (which was one of the best things you could hear from Chris), “I’d probably do the same thing.” (That was the best one.) “Did you think about school anymore? Going back, or like, doing something totally new like Christy was saying?”
“Same answer as always really. I’ve thought about it, but then I think, geez, do I really need to postpone getting myself straightened out by another X amount of years?”
“Yeah I could see that.”
“I dunno,” I said. “I guess I’ve been trying to find something I can just throw myself at and succeed by being naturally good at it, y’know? I know it sounds dumb, but like that stock broker guy for instance. I don’t think you necessarily need a degree for that. You just have to be good. Study the market, or whatever they do. Not that that’s what I’m thinking of, but like, as an example.”
He nodded, thinking.
“I was really on a learning kick there for a while,” I went on, “like right when I got out. I feel like all I did inside was read, and it was amazing to have like, television and the internet to rapid fire through things. But then at the same time, I don’t think you can get a job at the History Channel because you watched all the episodes of ‘Mysteries at the Museum.’”
He laughed. “I don’t know. Probably not as a consultant, but maybe as a researcher? I don’t know how that works exactly. I did read the other day that one of the libraries in New York just created some positions that are basically Cha-cha, if you remember that.”
“Like people just call them and ask stuff?”
“Pretty much. The guy they were interviewing said earlier that day he’d gone out and measured the height of the curb because somebody was wanting an average number.”
“See?” I laughed. “I would be amazing at that. All I do is spend my time investigating stupid stuff. I wonder if you have to have a degree though. If it’s a library you might need a Master’s.”
“I don’t know; it didn’t really say. But I thought about you when I read that. Not because it’s stupid stuff, but because you’ve always been drawn to that. I feel like most things would just be boring for you.”
“Probably. But that doesn’t necessarily fly as a reason here, either. I mean, nobody would have any job ever if you were allowed to just say, ‘no, no I don’t like this one.’”
He shrugged. “Maybe. It’s all a trade off. Find something that’s worth being bored at I guess.”
“Maybe. I’ve actually been thinking about film a lot lately.” Admittedly, I was half making this up as I went, but he was fun to spitball with. With him, just seeing where he was and knowing that he’d made it this far purely because he wanted to, it made you feel like there really was no reason your “want” couldn’t count too. Kind of reminded me of a guy I knew one time. “Not like making them I mean, but like, analyzing them.”
“Like a critic?” This was, I should point out, said completely nonjudgmentally.
“Maybe? But not like, Siskel and Ebert. I’m not really sure what I mean yet. I mean, to really analyze them, I’d probably have to have a degree or something. To just be a critic, I don’t know if you need anything for that but strong opinions. Though I guess I don’t see myself doing that either really. I’m not sure.”
“You want to be an essay-ist.”
“Is that a job?”
He laughed. “I don’t have any idea how it works, but I mean, you had to read Thoreau and Paine and all that in school. Even now, I’m pretty sure that’s what half of David Foster Wallace’s books were. People would just pay him to go do stuff and then write about it.”
“That would be amazing.”
He shrugged and cocked his head to the side, Chris’s “I don’t know but that doesn’t mean I’m disagreeing with you” gesture.
“I wonder how you do that,” I said. “Like, just start writing stuff and sending it out?”
“I s’pose. I mean, isn’t that how writers work anyway?”
“Yeah kinda. I guess, I mean at the bottom of it all, yeah.”
He shrugged. “Try that. Who cares? What’s the worst thing they’re gonna say? No? I don’t mean to joke about it, but you’ve had worse experiences.”
“Yeah,” I was looking off to the side, already trying to think of something interesting to write about. I made a mental note to check the library for Wallace books the next time I went back. “That’s an interesting idea,” I said after a pause.
“What were you thinking about? With movies I mean?”
“Oh,” I laughed. “I don’t know, just how like, franchises work. I assume there has to be some kind of graph these companies use to say ‘all right, we can basically guarantee this amount of people are going to see Movie Number 2, so even if it sucks, it should give us a return.’”
“Yeah, you’re probably spot on, actually.”
“I’d probably need to understand finances a little more than I do.”
“That’s fine,” he laughed. “I may or may not know a guy here after bit.”
Later that night, after work, after tentatively running ideas by Rebekah, I holed up with my computer and tried my damnedest to find out how to write.
Around one am, my phone buzzed. Kirsten.
I typed “Hey” and set the phone back on the counter. I wasn’t sure, but it was seeming more and more like there was only one requirement to be an essayist (that’s apparently the actual term), and that one thing was to be a genius. At least of the Wallace type. There were plenty of other essay-writing jobs. Or at least “gigs,” as one site insisted on referring to them. Those more and more sounded like some dude looking for somebody to go to class and do his homework for him though. And who in their right mind would want to do that? I mean I’m sure I could go that route to a certain extent, but I had already done plenty of college; I’d need a pretty healthy incidenive to slog through all that again.
My phone buzzed again. I glanced at the illuminated message preview. “MSG from: Kirsten: ‘Guess what I’m doing…’”
I picked up my phone to see what the rest of it said. Just a winky face.
“I have no idea,” I wrote. “I’m looking at the computer. Is that it?”
Almost immediately, “Nooooooope.”
I looked at the clock. “Getting ready for bed?”
There was a pause of a couple minutes, just long enough for me to assume the conversation was again abruptly over for no apparent reason, then the phone buzzed again. “MMS from: Kirsten: [IMG] ‘You got it!’”
I swiped the screen open.
The text was below a picture of her, hair wet again, the shower curtain visible behind her, and a towel just barely held in front of her breasts.
I cocked my head to the side, actually unsure what to say. Her eyes had that same ornery look they did when we’d talked at the library last, her grin a cocky one that made the whole thing somehow more appealing, like she knew I would want what she had, and I knew she was, eventually, going to give it to me.
“Speechless?” she said.
I sat for a second longer, not wanting to have to write “yes,” but unsure what else to say. In a moment of inspiration, I gathered my wits and typed “No, not at all. I was just trying to figure out how to convince you to drop that towel.” Two could play this game, I thought, and sat the phone back down. That would shut her up.
It seemed like more and more, as Rebekah had said, we were playing with each other, engaged in some kind of competition where the only rule was that there were no rules, except that the one who ended up actually caring lost. I was realizing, despite what she’d said at the time, despite her honestly kind attempt to not jump to conclusions, it seemed like Rebekah had a pretty clear understanding of exactly how all this might work out.
At the same time, I felt a little bad about trying to cut Kirsten off. I didn’t want to be a completely heartless jackass. I felt like, in spite of myself, things were, even if just marginally, trying to turn around. We’d had a few normal talks. Kinda. On the other hand, I still remembered how to not care when I felt like I needed to. I had plenty of experience with people who would just as soon knock you down as take one step to the side, people that took not what they needed, but what they wanted, even if it was out of nothing other than boredom. Not that I was some jailhouse roughneck. Probably just using that term disqualified me for the description. But I remembered how to be untouchable. When you don’t care about anything, you’re invincible.
My phone buzzed again and I swiped the screen with half an eye still on the computer. But only for a second, because there she was, the towel now only visible in the background of the shot, hung over the shower rod. She had a thumbnail in her mouth, a pose that seemed so perfectly appropriate I couldn’t decide if she was naturally making the expression, or if she was copying it from every lingerie ad ever.
“No,” I typed, disregarding all my previous, self-assured thoughts in order to lapse back into immature middle-schooler. “But you need to come over so I can tell you about it in person.”
I looked at the picture again, enlarging it on the screen and analyzing every pixel. Her thumbnail, the way she was holding the phone, the look in her eyes as she gazed into the mirror and into the camera and through the picture, straight at me.
“Oh yeah?” she wrote back. “You like?”
I started to respond when another image came through. She’d taken a step back, moving her hand from her mouth down to a splay-fingered position on her hip. I could see down to her knees, a tan, smooth, slender body. And in this format at least, I realized the scars were practically invisible.
“I do,” I said. “How do I get you over here?”
She didn’t respond, but sent another pose instead, turned away from the mirror, her eyes looking back over her shoulder, the grin now nothing but devilish, the kind that made you long for it. She had her bottom lip between her teeth. I realized after a moment, so did I.
“You’re killing me,” I typed. “Do I need to come get you?”
I sat my phone down and waited.
After five minutes, I had gone through an entire spectrum of emotions, chastising myself for falling for it, for being weak, for giving her what she wanted and getting nothing back. I opened the keyboard, “Oh I see,” I typed. “You’re one of those girls.” Send.
She wrote back, “Sry, brushing teeth. What girls?”
“The ones that like to get me all excited so they can laugh about it.”
A few minutes later. “Not at all. You wound up over there?”
“Intrigued,” I wrote, and then changed it. Too pretentious. “You should come find out,” I said, not entirely sure what I meant, and equally unsure I wouldn’t go get her if she took me up on it.
“I’d like that,” she said. “I don’t know if you could keep up though.”
“Only one way to find out.”
The conversation felt emptier the second time around, like we were reciting lines instead of actually talking to one another. I swiped the screen down, rereading it all, relooking at the pictures, trying to figure out if I was being played, if this was maybe the real point of it, for her to feel attractive. I shook my head a little. If that were really the case, I was getting to help her even more than I intended.
I resolved to not write back if it took her more than five minutes to respond.
Five minutes later I amended the number to fifteen.
An hour later, I turned my phone off. Small victories, maybe.