I wasn’t one of those high school students who went to the counselor just to ditch the odd class here and there. I didn’t want to go at all, ever. I’m not interested in old dudes who consult some government issued statistical chart of teenage angst before adjusting their patronization appropriately.
I was coerced.
See, call me a nerd, but I could actually comprehend what a good future entailed and how to get there. I knew that getting into a top university and realizing my ultimate career would take dedication. And I knew that dedicated, 24/7, semi-psychotic studying would suck ass. I didn’t just develop a random addiction to torturing myself with text books. I planned my chaotic spiral into depression. As far as I was concerned, everything was going to plan.
Sure, that meant that my best friend was complaining of neglect and my teachers thought I was headed for suicide, but it wasn’t really anyone’s place to demand I see a counselor when I kept telling them all I was fine. Sometimes you really are fine, even when you fall asleep on piles of trash bags in the parking lot between classes.
But someone just had to go to one of my teachers out of worry. Then I was pretty much threatened with suspension should I not see a professional in regards to my ‘unhealthy’ capacity for giving a fuck. I mean, there had to have been something wrong with that school. The kids who slept through every class and aspired to hacking hard gum off the underside of seedy diner tables weren’t forced to see counselors. Just me, the one kid who’d read a book at some point in his life.
I went there, swearing under my breath the whole way, slammed the door behind me, and took a seat—in front of a smiling, middle-aged woman.
OK, so not an old dude with Rorschach patterns and a pipe like I’d expected, but in hindsight my expectations might have been a little outdated. I was immediately lulled into a false sense of security, considering she looked a little bit like my mom, and Jesus, if I could actually talk to my mom about anything, maybe I wouldn’t have become a neurotic mess in the first place.
“Hello, Mr Minkin. It’s nice to meet you,” she said, aiming her most disarmingly tender gaze at me.
I felt some of the tension leave my shoulders despite myself. Damn, she was good. I mumbled a response, trying to maintain a decent level of surliness. Because that’s what I hate about these people; I hate feeling like I’m being tricked. And even if I’m being tricked into being happier, I’m still being tricked, dammit, and they’re not smarter than me!
“Well, I’ve been told that one of your friends is very concerned about your welfare right now—”
I cut her off, narrowing my eyes. “It was one of my friends? It wasn’t my mom? Was it Jules?”
She looked taken aback by the anger in my voice. “Well … I don’t think that’s for me to say. And that’s not really the issue here. The issue is—”
“The issue is that I don’t need any help!”
Her lips pursed. She gave a low hum of disapproval.
Maybe the lack of sleep was making me kind of touchy. I did pull all-nighters three or four times a week, I did take a variety of pills to keep me awake and I did experience the odd micro-sleep where I’d slip into weirdly violent dreams at any moment. One time I blacked out in class and came to muttering about my plans to shank Mr Partridge. That didn’t go down well.
“I’m sorry,” I said, after a strained silence. “It’s just … I’m fine. I know what I’m doing. I need to be studying for chem right now; I don’t have time for this.”
Looking uncomfortable, she cleared her throat with a delicate cough. I glanced around her office for the first time, having been too caught up in agitation to notice much. It was a small room. There were pictures of baby animals everywhere and a few certificates half-covered by kitten posters hanging by the door. The bean bag in the corner of the room looked more seductive than any pin-up model I’d ever seen and she had a variety of stress balls on her desk. A plaque announced that her name was Miss Darling.
“Well, it looks to me like there isn’t enough time in the world for what you’d like to do,” she said quietly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
With a shake of her head, she opened a drawer and started rooting through the contents. She pulled out a hand mirror and proffered it to me. When I only curled my lip at it, she gave me a surprisingly stern look. “Look at yourself, Jesse,” she chided.
I looked at myself. At first, I rolled my eyes, because I’d never looked good. You can’t blame ugly on lifestyle, after all. A scrawny, too-pale Russian kid with enormous dark eyes, I’d inherited my mother’s feminine features along with my senile grandfather’s ever increasing resemblance to an aye aye. But then, I really looked. I hadn’t seen myself in any other lighting than that of my dim bathroom mirror for a few weeks now and under the fluorescent lights, it was sinister. I didn’t look alive. The black rings under my eyes were heinous. My cheeks were gaunt.
“You’re really burning the candle at both ends, Jesse,” she said. “Can you see why your friends worry?”
Yes. Yes I did. But so what? I had a plan and I was sticking to it. I wasn’t about to slack off mere months before graduation just because I looked like an open-casket case. I shrugged.
“Well, at this school we care about our students. We need to do something about your stress levels, Jesse, and I’m afraid the faculty is treating your case very seriously. If acing your exams is so important to you that you’re unwilling to look after yourself, we’ll have to suspend you.”
I threw my hands up. “You can’t be serious! Since when is studying a fucking crime?!”
At my curse, she closed her eyes and clenched her jaw as if trying to stop herself from scolding me. I wondered if she was the kind of person who acted so sweet and caring all the time because she was a deep well of suppressed anger on the inside. Maybe if I swore at her enough, she’d crack and slap me. Then I could get her fired and continue burning my beloved candle on any damn side I pleased.
She tucked a stray, strawberry blonde curl behind her ear with a stiff movement. “Well, Jesse—”
“Do you have to say ‘well’ before every sentence? Can I just go to chem class already? I’m missing important stuff.”
She sniffed loudly, looking offended. “Jesse. I’m afraid you won’t be attending any classes at all if you don’t see to that attitude. I’m trying to help,”
“You’re not helping me! I’m helping me. I’m the only one that ever helps me! All you whining teachers just get in the way. I’m smarter than most of your faculty for fuck’s sake! How can they know what’s best for me if they only ever dreamed of Ivy League? Just let me help me and fuck off, already!”
That was when she called the principal in.
It must have seeped into my over-studied brain at that point that suspension was an actual possibility, and not one that I could in any way cope with. I couldn’t even imagine it. What would I do with myself? Would it taint my records? Would Harvard reject me? Did I have the balls to kill myself as soon as it happened? Could I face my mother?
My mother …
“I’m so sorry,” I blubbered. “I’ll do anything. I’ll sleep more. I’ll shower. Just don’t kick me out, please, Mr Gains. Please!”
The principal raised a brow at me before turning to Miss Darling. “This is the boy that’s on suicide watch?”
“I don’t want to kill myself!”
He gave me a long, hard stare. “Are you sure?”
He pressed his lips together and stared at me for another few seconds, looking dubious. Eventually, he sighed. I used to love Mr Gains when I started high school. He looked like a black version of Einstein and he never seemed to give a crap about anything, like being politically correct or listening to the kids. Now, I wished he’d give more of a crap. I had a feeling he’d be on my side if he wasn’t so over being a principal.
“Listen, Jay, Janet … Jesse,” he stuttered. I’m pretty sure he’d always thought I was a girl. “Situations like yours are like … like religion. You see, there are religions in the Middle East that consist of lots of peace-loving peoples who just want to practice their faith. But then, there are whackjobs, who take it too far and blow themselves up along with a lot of innocent people. Some students study very hard and that’s a great thing. But you, Jesse, you’re a whackjob. Do you know where I’m coming from?”
I sat, stunned into silence, until he carried on.
“We’ve got two options for you. We can give you a short suspension and talk to your parents about getting you help for your emotional well-being, or we can sign you up for a relaxing, social environment, like one of those pointless clubs all the kids are into. Glee club, or whatever. Which would you prefer?”
“... I’m in five clubs.”
He waved his hands at me. “Yes, we know. You’re in lots of fancy, stressful clubs. All the better to impress Harvard, I’m sure. But we’re talking pointless clubs, here. Completely pointless. You understand?”
I shook my head.
He just gave up. Leaning back against the counselor’s desk, he started picking at some fluff on his vest, as though the whole concept was boring him senseless.
Miss Darling gave me a forced smile as she handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s a list of all the clubs you can join,” she said sweetly, a note of hope in her voice that made me feel like spitting in her face. “I suggest the knitting club. I know you’ll turn your nose up, but boys can knit too and it’s ever so soothing.”
When I walked out the school doors that day, I was fuming. The ire had been bubbling up and simmering away in the back of my throat like acid reflux and I’d caught worried, sideways glances from the other students all afternoon. I stomped across the lawn, getting a wide berth from the milling crowds, and sought out Jules and Alex at the gates. We always met there after school and walked home together, seeing as we’d lived within two minutes from each other since birth.
As soon as I spotted them, I felt a rush of relief.
But, from the looks on their faces, I hadn’t completely relaxed. Jules plastered a placating smile on his face and gave me a salute. We’d been friends since before either of us could speak, mostly because my mother and his parents were all church nuts. But without that snippet of information, it would be pretty hard to guess why we hung out so much. We couldn’t be more different. Those moronic, lazy, unmotivated students that I was ranting about? He was sort of one of them.
He wasn’t dumb. He was actually kind of sensitive and insightful, but his grades were abysmal and the only thing he really excelled at in school was athletics. Which I sucked at. He was about 6′2, I was 5′5. He was dark haired and olive skinned with sparkly, lady-killer blue eyes, I was too pale and definitely on the girly side. He had a six pack and biceps bigger than my head, whilst I, on a good day, might be able to open a jar of pickles without assistance. He was half the reason I didn’t get picked on even though I was the biggest nerd in school.
The other half of the reason was standing behind him smoking a cigarette.
Alex was just as tall as Jules but a whole lot lankier. We’d started hanging out with him when we were about five, because he was the only one of Jules’ numerous cousins who lived on our street that was the same age. We were far too young to notice how poor, trashy, and violent his family was, even though my mother was constantly trying to explain that he was an ‘unclean boy’. It wasn’t until puberty that we realized almost everyone else was terrified of him and therefore, by association, us.
There was a rumor that he stabbed a guy once. I don’t even know if it’s a lie.
He had scruffy, black hair that had once been auburn and was pulled into a short ponytail. Illegal tattoos ran down both of his arms. One overly diluted pupil like David Bowie gave his face a really eerie quality, and he was constantly covered in bruises. On this day he was wearing a grease-stained wife-beater and obviously hadn’t been at school for a single class.
When I came to a stop, scowling and panting in front of them, Jules’ smile faltered. They both looked intimidated. By me. We’re talking about the hunkiest jock and the scariest redneck in town, both eyeing up a kid smaller than his own backpack like he might lunge forward and eat their faces. I guess that says something about my temper.
Other students bustled past. Cars roared by. Neither of them spoke until I stamped my foot angrily.
“I hate this school!” I yelled.
Jules gave a sympathetic wince. “Yeah, uh, everyone kinda heard about the thing in the counselor’s office,” he said, looking like he didn’t know whether to put a hand on my shoulder or sprint off in the other direction.
Alex flicked his cigarette out onto the road. “Heard you called Miss Darling a cunt,” he drawled.
I sneered at them. “What? How did you know?” How could you not even fart in that school without the whole place chattering about it like witless parrots? Not that most of them didn’t gossip about me anyway, the nerd that nearly jumped off the roof in freshman year for getting a B+. That had totally been blown out of proportion.
Apparently, a friend of a friend of Jules’ had been outside the counselor’s office listening to me swear at her. A small crowd had gathered and everything. I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him as he explained this to me. “So yeah,” he finished meekly. “Uh, someone must have complained about your study madness, dude.”
“Was it you?”
“No! No ... no?”
Alex snickered. I rounded on him and he immediately looked away, shoulders hunching. With a growl, I took a menacing step forward so I could stand between them and look back and forth between their spooked gazes. “If either of you ratted me out,” I said, tone low. “I will drug you. And when you’re passed out. I will mutilate your balls. Got me?”
With one last pointed look, I took off toward home.
Behind me, I heard Alex whisper a very quiet, “Why do we hang out with that guy?” and Jules shushed him. It took a few silent paces before either of them dared to catch up to me. When Jules matched my stride, he reached out for my bag like he always did because he knew it was probably causing me irreparable spinal damage. Even with all his muscle, he still grunted when he threw it over his own shoulder.
He’d given up trying to convince me that I didn’t need every textbook I owned in there.
“So, what’s the verdict? Did they instill an anti-homework regime?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes. “No.” I wanted to stop at that and not give him the pleasure of hearing about my humiliating punishment. But I couldn’t help myself; the urge to gripe was strong. “I got an ultimatum from Mr Gains: get kicked out of school or take up knitting for stress relief, are you happy now?”
“Knitting?” He wrinkled his nose and shrugged. “Breezy.”
“It doesn’t have to be knitting. Just whatever lame relaxation club I can get into,” I muttered. “She gave me a list.”
Alex strolled along on my other side. He smelled like gasoline. Some of the lingering students stared at him as they ambled down the street, expressions ranging from curiosity to disgust. A lot of people were snooty about Alex. They didn’t know how he got away with hardly ever attending and they couldn’t see beyond his dark persona. He snorted. “Maybe you guys can knit a scarf together and Jules’ll stop whinin’ ’bout how you never spend time with him no more.”
Jules pouted. “I don’t whine.”
I tried to tune them out. Their sheer, unwavering focus upon my academic tenacity had long since worn thin. They just didn’t get it. They wanted me to be a dopey sloth like them, watching shitty, stoner movies and playing video games until we were all forty years old in some tiny apartment somewhere, talking about how God damn breezy everything is. Like we should all just strive for fucking breeziness. Like you can pay the rent with breeze.
“It’s not my fault you guys don’t understand the importance of good grades,” I grumbled.
“Jesus Christ, here we go.”
“Jesus Christ your self, Jules!” I stopped, digging my heels into the pavement and trying unsuccessfully to yank my backpack off his shoulder. He looked cowed, but he stood his ground as I huffed at him. Exasperated, I threw my hands up. “The principal called me a terrorist!” I shouted, receiving a few startled looks from passing students. “Because I care about my future! I don’t need this! I don’t want to join a stupid slacker’s club. Who do they think they are?! Just ’cause I’m smarter than them! I threaten them, that’s what it is. They can’t stand that I’m going places. They wanna hold me back!”
Alex peered at me. “He called you a what?”
I think I started hyperventilating at that point. It might have had something to do with the white-hot resentment I’d been carrying around, mixed with the weak, shaky, sleep-deprived state of my body. All I know is that I had some kind of flashback to earlier, when that lame bitch of a counselor was suggesting suspension. My heart pounded. A cold sweat overtook me. I had a sudden urge to throw myself in front of the bus that was heading our way.
Then Jules’ eyes were right in front of mine and I was murmuring something about calculus. It took me a while to notice he was shaking me. “Stop, Jess!”
I blinked at him.
“Take a breath, Christ!”
Bewildered, my gaze drifted to Alex. He’d lit another cigarette and was frowning at me like I was some kind of indecipherable and unimpressive artwork. When I looked back at Jules I was momentarily struck by the genuine concern in his features. His gaze wandered all over my face, checking me for any sign of aftershocks. Eventually, cautiously, he let go of my shoulders.
“Look,” he said calmly. “You’re amazing. You’re better than that school. I get it. But do you think it’s maybe not about holding you back and more about ... helping you cope?”
All my vexation returned in a millisecond. “I am coping!”
“I am calm!”
“Everybody needs to wind down sometimes,” he said, warily placing an arm around my shoulders and walking me forward once more. “Did you know that Einstein slept ten hours a night? I googled that, it’s true. You don’t sleep when you get like this. You don’t eat, you don’t smile. You lose your shit and I’m fucking worried about you, dude.”
I dug my heels in again. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
His eyes widened. He looked at Alex as though pleading for help with his eyes and, when Alex only shrugged, he started rambling.
“All I’m saying is that maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Maybe you’ll enjoy yourself. Maybe Harvard likes that kind of thing. You know, balancing study and recreation or ... whatever. Do they? I’m sure they do. We’ll help you find an awesome club and I’ll join it too, I mean, if you want me to. It would be like old times! You and me in the back of the classroom, passing notes. We won’t even have to pay attention. Clubs are a breeze. Aren’t they? We’ll find one that’s breezy. Please stop looking at me like that. Even if it was me it’s only because I’m looking out for you, man ...”
“If you were looking out for me, you would have let me cram in peace.”
Alex lost his patience with our conversation and started stalking ahead. After a few paces he turned, looked at us both meaningfully, and tipped his chin. “Why don’t we all just chill out for once,” he called back, gesturing at me with his cigarette. “Kid needs to take the edge off.”
I looked up at Jules in time to see his eyes fill with mischievous delight. Then I was being tugged alongside him as he hurried to catch up with Alex. Alex didn’t talk that much, but he was one of those people who could insinuate a hell of a lot with as little words as possible. Pot was on the table. He always had pot. I think he might have been selling it, but nobody really knew the extent of what he got up to when it came to making a few bucks.
We all jogged across the busy street, Jules nearly getting us run over twice. On the other side, I pushed out of his hold and then stumbled so that Alex had to catch my arm. He gave me a devilish grin.
“Oh, no. No, no,” I said, winded. “I missed a whole period today and I need to catch up.”
He waved a hand at me. “One night won’t kill you.”
“Just because it won’t kill you, doesn’t mean it’s worth doing.”
We were walking past Alex’s street. The first few apartments near the main road were decent enough. It was about a block in that the trash started piling up in front yards and the screaming began. There had been quite an uproar at one stage about such a disgusting ghetto being so close to a respectable neighborhood of middle-class folk. But the ghetto had been there first and the slummers weren’t going anywhere.
I don’t want to put my hometown on blast; it gets enough negative press as it is. Although it deserves every mention in every top-ten list of shadiest places to live, it’s still home, and I don’t believe it’s a lost cause yet. There are strides being made and urban decay being disinfected. Plus, the fact that its decline has been so explicitly broadcast means it’s an embarrassment to the country already. The more conspicuous our downfall the stronger our hope for intervention, so maybe I don’t want to admit that I’m fond of it. Viva la bad press! We’re morbidly proud of our crime rate there.
Alex flipped off some mangy kid on the curb as we passed. Probably one of his siblings. Just when I thought I had them all memorized, it turned out half the kids I recognized weren’t his siblings at all, just random, flea-infested children hanging around his house. I had no idea how many there were.
“Didn’t you say your mom flew out yesterday?” Jules asked me.
I shrugged. “So? Go get stoned at Alex’s house.”
“Can’t,” Alex said. “Nina’s having a slumber party, I’m on the couch tonight.”
I could see where this was going.
“Well, go get stoned at the park.”
“But Jizz!” Jules whined.
“Don’t call me Jizz!”
“C’mon, dude! We haven’t blazed at your pad for months! We could invite some of the other guys and everything. Your place is the shit when the old lady’s out.”
OK, so here’s the deal. My mother is terrifying. She’s a tiny, blonde, Russian woman who can hardly speak English—well, maybe that’s exaggerating; she can speak broken English hilariously well—and she’s insane. Like, she’s the kind of woman who would chase bears around with a plank of wood back in the motherland, just because she hated them. And that’s not some overblown story she told me, either. There are photographs.
She dressed me herself, manually, until I was twelve. She gave me shots of vodka to make me sleep when I was ten. She taught me how to use a handgun when I was eight fucking years old, just in case my father ever came home when she was away. And until I was old enough to evade her clutches, she’d force feed me things like cow tongue because I was never fat enough for her.
She’s a flight attendant, so she’s away a lot. Sometimes weeks at a time. But hey, in her Russia, ‘boys fend for self’. And due to her high expectations in regards to my behavior, she truly believed she’d brought me up to be a quiet, responsible angel whenever she left.
Alex, Jules and half our elementary class had been blazing up at my mom’s house since we were twelve, and she was none the wiser. As I got older and more serious about my education, it happened less and less, but I couldn’t deny that I missed it. So did all our elementary school classmates, who were forever asking Jules when my mom was flying out next. He’d stayed friends with most of them, even though several had gone to different high schools or dropped out altogether. We’d all been fairly close at one stage, but I wouldn’t know any of them anymore if it wasn’t for Jules.
“Jess. Seriously,” Alex said, sounding genuinely ticked off. “Don’t be a fuckin’ asshole. We’ve only got another few months to do this shit, y’know.”
I pouted. We walked past Jules’ veritable mansion in silence and when we got to my front door, I broke. “Fine,” I said. “But no one else is coming and you’re both leaving before midnight.”
I had good intentions. I was going to stay up another four hours or so after I shooed them both away. I was going to catch up on my chemistry study. I didn’t want to be sucked into their tomfoolery. There was just too much to do, too much to drill into my memory. Finals were mere months away! I needed to quiz myself to make sure my freshly acquired brain cells had settled into their new home. I had to cross reference. I had to read and revise and read and revise and you already know that I didn’t do any of that.
Alex draped his lanky limbs all over my bed as he rolled a spliff, Jules teased me in an overtly sexual tone about all the munchies he was going to get, and I was doomed.
“I’ma get a big, long snickers ...”
I shook my head at him, trying my best to look disinterested. “Yeah?”
“Mmm, yeah,” he purred. He leaned down to whisper in my ear. “And Reece’s Nutrageous.”
He knew me too well. I caved, moaning in appreciation, and he left for the gas station down the road.
But, in denial about my impending unfaithfulness to the divine study schedule, I sat down at my desk and rifled through my text books. My room was covered in Harvard paraphernalia. Absolutely covered. As in, every inch of space from the windows to the ceiling was plastered over with something Harvard related. It helped me focus. I took out my chemistry book, seeing as I’d missed that whole period getting propositioned by Miss Cat-Fetish, and flipped to the day’s lesson.
Alex carried on rolling one of his perfect joints, either pretending, or genuinely not noticing, my resentful glances.
I heard the snick of a lighter and the smell of pot was instantly distracting. I turned to him, letting the pen in my fingers tap against the open pages. He’d thrown his head back against my headboard. His long neck was arched and his eyes were closed as smoke slowly drifted from his nostrils. “You look tired,” I said.
He snickered. “You’re one to talk. Heard you’re poppin’ all kinds of shit to keep you up.”
I frowned, but he opened his eyes briefly to give me a playful look and whatever retort I was brewing gradually simmered away. I studied the tattoos on one of his arms to keep myself from watching the joint in his hand. Naked chicks and cars. For someone who was shamelessly, notoriously bi-sexual, he sure loved his naked chicks. The room he shared with two of his brothers was covered in lewd centerfolds. What little time he spent in class was usually taken up by sketching surprisingly skilled and intricate female forms.
And then he’d hook up with ‘straight’ athletes sometimes like it was no big deal. It was confusing. A lot about Alex was confusing.
“How come you worked today?” I asked, curious. “Thought your boss wasn’t going to cut into school hours anymore.”
With a shrug, he said, “Money,” and that’s all he needed to say.
Jules thundered up the stairs and through my door, throwing a bag of potato chips at my head that I did not see coming. I grunted, flailed, and huffed when he smirked at me. “Munchies!” he sung.
Three hours later I was deliciously stoned. I thought I was still keeping my shit together, at least enough to kick them out before midnight and get a decent sleep for school the next morning, but then I realized I had no idea what we’d been talking about since my first puff. Suddenly, my missed class and homework seemed not only unimportant but downright laughable. I giggled at jokes about my own neuroticism as I passed the joint back to Jules, who passed it to Alex, who passed it to a succession of other school mates who I didn’t remember inviting.
At this point, the only thing I was stressing about was making sure the windows stayed closed. We lived in a housing complex where the neighbors were ridiculously close. My mom was fairly chummy with them, and with at least five joints being passed around, there was no way in hell I was letting the smoke out. They were practically neighborhood watch, and as much as they cooed and fussed over ‘that clever little bookworm’, I knew they’d grass me up in a heartbeat.
Jules kept complaining about the stuffiness. I told him to go back to his castle if he wanted some air. His house was about six times bigger than mine, so he probably wouldn’t even need to close any windows. The smoke would dissipate long before it reached the upper-class nostrils of his neighboring mansion owners.
He gave me a bored look. “Like Old Man Hard-Ass would let a bunch of stoned kids in.”
Rebecca and Liz were in fits of giggles, desperately trying to capture Jules’ attention. Ben was there. Rico. God, I don’t even know. There were about twelve of us. All people who’d known us long enough not to be terrified of Alex. We’d all been children together, after all, and he hadn’t always looked like a scary, tattooed punk. Once upon a time we’d all traded playing cards and dressed up as superheroes on Halloween.
At some point, Ben went out and somehow came back with beer, and that’s when things got a little out of hand for a school night.
I remember being harassed about details of my near suspension. There were far too many questions about my reclusive cramming and far too many statements about how I never used to be so obsessed. ‘I always knew you were a nerd, but damn!’ ‘I heard you head-butted the counselor!’ ‘You guys haven’t had a party for months!’
I ended up explaining my woeful situation, and regaling them all with the list of relaxing clubs I had to choose from. This was met with rapt attention and much speculation. You know how it is with stoners; everything, even the most facetious of comments, can be analyzed in depth until a profound, underlying truth is discovered, and then in the next moment, it’s all lighthearted fun again. A discussion about Drama Club went from intense conjecture about the impact of celebrities on society to whether or not Will Smith has been covertly replaced by an alien.
“Jazz and Jive,” I read enthusiastically. And then pretended to read: “a place for old fashioned souls to groove, jam and be openly queertastic with fellow band-camp rejects.”
Everyone was sprawled about on my floor, crushing Doritos into my carpet and lolling about on cushions. Jules sat behind me, pressing his chin into my shoulder and reading along. “Look, Film Appreciation!” he pointed out. “Fuckin’ A! Sit on your ass watching movies for a period a day? How breezy could it get?”
I squinted at the blurb beside it. “Nah, it says it’s only for freshmen.”
“There should be an Ass Appreciation club,” Sam muttered. He was a skinny, permanent stoner that got the best grades out of all of them, even though he never studied and only ever talked about chicks and pot. They were nowhere near as good as my grades, but he was smart enough to surf a steady B wave despite minimal attendance. He’d found a cozy niche between disappointing his family and realizing his potential, so there was no reason for him to try any harder.
It was a shame. We had a lot in common back when I started caring about school and he started caring less, it’s like we met in the middle—me in the oversized Harvard jerseys my mother wrestled me into, with my lingering penchant for slacking off with Jules and my budding appreciation for ‘cool science stuff’, and him with his braces and Urkel glasses, the victim of three older sisters with perfect grades and competitive trivia around the dinner table.
We might have stayed good friends through high school if all that intelligence hadn’t been channeled entirely into the chasing of tail. But Jules and Alex weren’t so discerning.
Sam was the one who got us all into pot in the first place. You’d think it would have been Alex, but his family had no time for non-fatal drugs. I mean, in comparison to the hardcore poison we all vaguely knew Alex’s family lived on, our introduction to pot never seemed like a big deal to any of us. Especially not Sam. It might seem unconventional, given the fact that his dad wore sweaters tied around his neck and his mom was a Sunday school teacher, but pot was a household tradition for him. All of his sisters had gone to college, acquired decent qualifications, held down impressive careers, and retired every day at 4.20, if you know what I mean.
His life was the epitome of ‘breezy’—Jules’ word for the lazy man’s American Dream—and there was a time I idolized him for that. Nowadays I just found his apathy tedious.
“AA, man,” he drawled. “Go ’round taking pictures of booty and scoring it all scientifical-like.”
Alex snorted at him.
“Scientifical isn’t a word,” Liz said. Her eyes were half-lidded. She was one of those girls who thought she was still clever when she was baked. “It’s scienfitic … fit … fic.”
“There really is a knitting club,” Jules mumbled in my ear.
“Of course there is,” I said, and then mocked Miss Darling’s words. “Boys knit too, you know.” I didn’t realize that Jules hadn’t been there for that conversation. He laughed at me, like I’d been serious, and I was too stoned to find words in my defense. I ended up just frowning bemusedly at the list, browsing through a few more and reading out the more pathetic sounding names to rounds of lazy chuckles. Alex particularly liked the sound of the fund-raising club, if only because there was a canned food donation appeal in the blurb and he was ‘sick of eating dog food.’ Which was an exaggeration. Probably.
I came to, “The Diversity Club,” with a raised brow, and Jules read the blurb for me.
“For anyone who needs a break from class and wants to spend time with a friendly group of unobtrusive, accepting people. No pressure. No questions. No expectations.”
There was thoughtful silence in the room, until Alex mumbled “I think I’ve heard of that.” He looked at me pensively, clicking his tongue-ring against his teeth. “Can’t think. It was … somethin’ to do with … nah, I forget.”
“Oh my God!” Rebecca wailed. “I never realized how good Cheetos are!”
After a couple of beers, I was too out of it to talk to anyone. I listened to Jules’ voice for a long time, because I’d somewhat embarrassingly fallen against his chest. He had long-winded and mostly nonsensical conversations with some of the others. Eventually, I came to the delayed realization that it was just us and Sam left in the room. By the time Sam had passed out in the corner, I was capable of movement again.
I considered getting out of Jules’ lap at that point, because our position wasn’t the straightest. But he didn’t seem to care and I reminded myself for the umpteenth time that everyone had left. There was no one to kick out, and no one to crack a queer joke like they sometimes did when Alex wasn’t around. It was never mean-spirited, they wouldn’t have the balls. But we’d grown up together. People associated us with each other like we were two halves of a single entity. Gay jokes were inevitable. And even if he did always laugh it off, I could tell it irked Jules.
Probably because he didn’t want ribbing to ruin his enjoyment of athletic pursuits.
We had a murmured conversation about my study madness. Again. At that moment I was too mellow to argue about it, though, which was most likely why he’d chosen it.
“I just miss this,” he said. “Having a good time every once in a while.”
I huffed. “You could have a good time without me. You’d probably have a better time without me. It’s not like you have to talk anyone else into a party.”
“You know what I mean, dude. It’s like ... I like it like this. You’re not obsessing over the future too much to enjoy yourself, you know? We haven’t got long. You’ll fly off to your Ivy League bullshit and I’ll work for my dad and fuck it. I know you take school seriously and everything, but it’s not the most important thing in life. It’s just not, Jess.”
“Well, what is?” I asked, mustering up the energy for a tinge of sarcasm. “Pot and munchies?”
He sighed. “Yeah. That’s definitely what I was talking about.”
I woke up to the sound of a door slamming.
Some things came back to me now that I had a clear head. Most of the guys had shuffled out of my house before dawn, not to be seen at their respective schools until at least Monday. Alex had offered to give the girls a lift, despite being more than a little tipsy and more than a lot high. He just wanted to get into their pants, no doubt.
As I sat up, panic spiking and head pounding, I discovered I’d slept on my floor, and that Jules had slept on my fucking bed. Asshole.
I clamored to my knees and shook him violently.
“Jules! I think my mom’s home!”
“What? Huh?! No!”
I pulled a face of despair. “Yes! And it smells like pot in here, dude!”
“What?! No, no, no. Why would it? It’s been ages.”
He looked and sounded just as terrified as I did. He was pulling at his hair, eyes darting frantically around the room.
“We smoked all night with the windows closed!” I reminded him. “And Sam is still here ... lighting a joint!”
Jules leaped off the bed and across the room, plucking the fresh joint from Sam’s lips and flailing around with it in his fingertips like he didn’t know where to put it. I thrust the ashtray at him. He stabbed out the joint, opened a window, and frisbied the whole thing down the street. Bemused, I stuck my head out beside him to see where it landed, lest my neighbors come across it, but it sailed at least five houses away.
Nevertheless, I turned and socked him in the arm. “What the fuck?!”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!”
Both of our heads whipped around at the sound of footsteps on the stairwell. Jules made a choked sound in the back of his throat.
If my scrawny, pint-sized self scared him, my mother absolutely petrified him. And me. And any friend I’d ever invited over. Some never returned. Most only dared when she was absent. Even Sam, still scowling about his confiscated joint, looking dazed and confused in a pile of cushions, started to catch on to my mother’s approach. His face fell. He looked instantly sober. It was like one of those scenes in a horror movie where the murderer is two steps away from hacking their way in with a chainsaw.
But when my doorknob turned and I resigned myself to facing Satan’s mistress herself, it was only Alex.
“Sup, cunts,” he drawled. “We wakin’ ‘n’ bakin’ or what?”
It dawned on me that my mother wasn’t due home for another two weeks yet. But the ‘Mom’s home’ reflex had been a lifesaver in the past so I didn’t berate myself for the lapse in judgment, or the subsequent loss of my favorite novelty ashtray. And anyway, the spike of adrenaline was better than any morning alarm. I peered at the clock on my bedside table, half buried in chocolate wrappers, and blanched. Five minutes ’til my first class.