“You’re doing great!” said Random Old Guy. He was standing in line behind me, wearing curly gray hair, boxy orange glasses, and the cutest smile. He even offered me a double thumbs-up.
“Thanks!” I mouthed (and sort of whispered) back at him, returning the smile. I think HE thinks I’m a teenager, snagging her first license… I thought, amused.
And then the office lady said it was time to take my picture. I stood up straight in front of the camera and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. One, two, click.
“Oh, that’s a GOOD picture,” she said approvingly, nodding at her computer screen.
“Aw, really? It may be the first one I ever like… ha!”
Words have always mattered to me. So spending yesterday hopping around town, engaged in the endeavor of dropping the last name that no longer held anything real, gave me a 24-hour migraine in the best kind of way. More on that here.
The story I’m sharing below is the second one I’ve written this semester. It is, like the last one, 95% nonfiction.
Sidebar: I revisited this post on 12.11.18 to delete the short version of the short story and replace it w/the updated copy I submitted as my “portfolio” for this semester. Enjoy!
by Jace Rose
“I mean, it’s been what — three years now?”
“Yeah. Yeah… I know.”
This was kind of awkward, so we took a minute to sip on our drinks. I watched the bartender, a middle-aged blonde wearing tight everything and a shit-ton of rings, shake ice into a glass. Further down the counter, rogue beer rushed out of a spout. Voices yelled back and forth in the kitchen and an indie song played near the walls; something in my brain twitched a little.
“And you still think about him? Like, a lot?”
I turned to face my friend. “Yes. And I hate it.” I took another brave sip of bourbon, a real mood drink. “I don’t WANT to think about him anymore. I hope you know that. I don’t want to love him or care about how he’s feeling or wonder how he’s doing…” feeling disgusted with myself, I took another pause, shaking my drink slightly so that it sloshed against glass walls. I watched it raging freely and envied it. “I’m honestly open to any advice you have,” I said finally.
She pressed her lips together: pink, pretty. She was wearing a peach blouse underneath a light denim dress, a girl from another era. She’s sensitive; I’m telling you this, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s a Pisces, so good luck getting a clear idea what’s going on underneath her waters.
“You clearly know your feelings, but you don’t really take reality into account,” she said. “So, three years later, you need to put the feelings that won’t change and aren’t reciprocated SOMEWHERE… wherever you want, really. Just — find a way to contain them.”
Contain them. Despite being extremely punk rock, I work in a corporate office, so I immediately imagined a filing cabinet; cold, yellow, metal. I could cram files for the last two ex-lovers into one drawer, easy, but the first would need a drawer all his own. Ridiculous. It’s basically like the ass-hat murdered a whole damn tree, I criticized silently.
Or, instead of a filing cabinet, I could throw him in a cage — this seemed more fitting. More punk rock, for sure. Steel bars could reliably contain the king of the show… the silly cat parading about as a lion. Fucking Gemini.
“Or maybe try to picture him as an itch you aren’t supposed to scratch,” she suggested, interrupting these scenes, “because when you do, it–”
“It just gets worse,” I finished. Basic and cliché as the tactic sounded, it could prove effective, as I’d just noticed a red bite on my left ankle that morning and it had been ruining various moments of the day.
“Right,” she said.
I smiled over at her. Sighed, shook my head. We were at a bar. It was Friday night.
We, he and I, used to play in bars on Friday nights and Wednesday nights and Monday nights and Tuesday nights…
Pale Eddie’s was our first main place. It was perpetually dark on the inside — you know; a typical bar. You walk in, bump into some sticky, beat-up tables here and there, and then further ahead, there’s a bar on the left and a stage on the right. Or whatever. Something like that.
It was so cool. My first real bar. And because my grandma had always warned that angels don’t follow you into bars, the place naturally possessed even more mystique. More than it actually deserved, maybe.
Anyways, the five of us (me and him, the electric guitarist and bassist, and our sometimes-drummer) would walk in with gear weighing down our hands and arms. After taking about fifteen steps forward, across acid-washed concrete, we’d deposit everything beside the wall that extended beyond the stage: mics, guitars, amps, cables, saxophones, keyboards, capos, tuners — all of it.
And here’s the thing we hadn’t yet realized: You play first, hardly anyone’s there to hear it, other than other performers who are really just waiting for their own time to shine.
So you learn to play third, fourth, eighth, last — because the longer you wait, the bigger the crowd gets, and the longer you wait, the drunker the crowd gets, making you sound (whether this is real or imagined) the best.
And when it’s go time and you’re finally up on the stage, the whole place becomes elevated… like, okay; instead of your angel not following you in there, he tagged along and brought a whole host of friends. Like that. It’s insanely bright – white, blurry, blinding.
And whether or not they’re supposed to, people smoke inside, blowing cancer and magic into the air. The magic makes you believe that things are going to change soon. That they’re destined to change. And that when they do, things are going to get so much better for you. He’ll stop doing things; you’ll start doing things. You forget about the cancer mixed in with it. Easy mistake… you’ll make it more than once.
So you’re strumming and singing into the mic, closing your eyes so you can see straight, when bam; before you know it, you’ve played three songs. And when the people get loud, hollering out words and cheers, you want to play another song, but your ten minutes are up. That’s how it goes, every time. You’re beginning to feel it, you’re just getting into it, right as the whole thing’s over.
So you ride home feeling cool and feeling excited to eat because stage fright made food a non-option all day, but when you get home, you realize that you’re actually really tired, so you don’t eat. Instead, you and that guy you’re obsessed with collapse into the bed that you share but he won’t cuddle with you anymore; it’s summer, he says, and the AC’s only just kicked on.
Cut that last part; that’s the kind of thing you don’t like to remember. You prefer remembering his green eyes when they were on you; the prickliness of his fiery beard – red on orange – when he’d tip his head down to kiss you; the spicy meals he’d cook in that tiny little apartment when he was feeling good enough, better than usual; and the goofy things he’d say in that silly tone of voice when it was just the two of you around and he could forget about looking cool and being right all the time.
You forget about the secret email account. He never did anything with it, true, but there was one, and he thought about using it.
And you never seem to remember the mean things he’d say when you’d push past his patience — the drastic change in tone, the shittiest choice of words.
The electric guitarist’s girlfriend had said something about that once, leaning in close during the guys’ smoke break at band practice: “I don’t know how you take it. I’d have slapped him across the face by now.”
“Yeah,” I said, unsure about what she’d said and what he’d said and everything. I watched him from where I was sitting on the living room floor; he was bending over a bong in the kitchen, and then blowing out smoke – so much smoke. I observed him through the haze.
Sometimes, you do remember how he found interesting ways of letting you know that you were a real disappointment to him – as a woman and a wife:
Guess all that make-up’s probably expired by now, huh?
Please do SOMETHING with your hair… I bought that curler for YOU, you know.
Could you maybe wear something sexier than a dumb NASA t-shirt to the show? AGAIN?
Why can’t we try this? Why are you like this?
Why are you such a PRUDE?
Maybe that’s why you chopped all of your hair off in the summer; so he’d quit bugging you about it.
Maybe that’s why – partially why – you changed genders, in your mind, for a while there… because it just didn’t seem like you were doing an even halfway-decent job of being a girl.
And maybe that’s why, in the fall – with a shaved head, skeleton body, and ghost eyes – you began turning away when he’d go to kiss you…
Why you stopped wanting him to look at you and your plain, disappointing face at all.
“Look, you still need to come up some more,” he said.
“I’m trying,” I said.
“Like, WAY more.”
“I’m trying, Christopher.”
Some days, I really hated him.
We were recording in the studio again — an upstairs bedroom we’d cleared out, painted
brown, and then stuck a bunch of gear into. This was where the guest room used to be, where the band practiced now, and where we’d pass entire days — sweating in the summer, shivering through the winter — laying down tracks like this one for no one but us to give a damn about. We hardly ate on days like today.
And while I wrote, strummed, and sang, he did all of the bass, sax, and key work. I’d include drums here, but his “beat” was just an electronic loop of some really basic shit. Don’t think those kinds of drums count.
Anyways, I’d been trying for lead vocals on this new alternative rock song of ours and he kept saying they weren’t loud enough.
“Sing LOUUUUUDER,” he said, drawing the word out slowly.
“I’m TRYING,” I said, squeaking it out like I was about to cry. And then I was crying.
“Christ, Rose.” He threw his headphones into the chair and left the room. I watched the white chair spin after him and then waited a few minutes to make sure he wasn’t coming back. I drank a few sips of water, walked over to the computer, and sat down in his chair.
I hit record once and sang the song once and got it.
I can remember most of our firsts; holding hands, kissing, going all the way. Or trying to, anyways; I was really scared the first time. He was understanding; made me laugh, let it go. We tried again, a few times, and I was still too scared. Finally, one time, he couldn’t deal anymore. Check.
But what’s weird is I can’t remember any of our lasts. The last I love you or time his hand or lips brushed mine… I can’t hear or picture it at all. More than his lips, even, I wish I could remember the last time I felt his hands. There’s something about another hand holding yours. You can infer a lot about a person, and about how they feel about you, from their hands — the look and feel of them; the lace and strength of their grip. How long they hold your hand. How often.
I dated lots of guys after he and I broke up, and none of them liked holding hands. They liked playing games, though, and they played it like they loved me until the games were over.
It’s like… once they’d had me, they didn’t seem to want me anymore. The light in their eyes would change right after the dinner ended, or I could see their jaws tightening over breakfast. And I could always see it, always — the check, coming.
Every time one of them didn’t work out, I automatically went back to missing Chris. Suddenly, I could only remember the very best things about him — the things I’ve already told you. I wouldn’t think of him pressuring me into clothes that didn’t fit right and vocals that didn’t sound right — no, I’d never think of these things. Memories like these were bottled up like strong wine; corked and then placed high up on a shelf somewhere… a shelf at one of those old bars, maybe. One of the ones I don’t play at anymore.
At times like these, I’d only remember the strange light in those green eyes. I’d relive the day he first told me he’d die without me. He made me feel so needed then, so central and crucial to his existence, that I eventually believed he really would die without me. And then, what I wanted more than anything was to keep him there with me… alive, smiling, satisfied, happy.
He made it so much easier for all of the guys afterwards to get what they wanted. Every one of them: so sad, so broken, so inexplicably bummed out over everything. I only wanted to make them happy.
I never even guessed that I was the sad and broken one.
“I know he wasn’t the best,” I said. “I mean, duh… neither was I. We were young!”
My best friend and I were drinking red wine at home.
“Then what is it you’re missing so much? What’s the real hang-up?” He asked this and then disappeared from the kitchen, lugging a trash bag out into the garage. I tucked a strand of honey-blonde hair behind one ear and set my glass down, covering it with a paper towel and a rubber band. Flies like to hang out with us in the kitchen; the alcohol, the lights…
“I think I mostly miss taking care of him,” I said, walking over to the stove. Stirring the sauce, smelling the sauce, having cut and diced every vegetable simmering in that sauce, I could already taste it – cherry red tomato, bitter vodka; sweet bell pepper, bold garlic…
“He was so unhappy,” I continued. “His baseline was being discontent. And I loved being the person who could make him feel better, make him smile.” I paused to watch noodles wage war in saltwater… whether it was on each other or on the water, I couldn’t tell.
“And I don’t know how to stop doing that, I guess – how to stop being that person.” I removed the steel pot from the stove and strained the noodles over the sink, instantly feeling their steam on my face and fingertips. Then I turned back around to combine them with the sauce.
“But you HAVEN’T taken care of him in three years now,” my best friend said, suddenly reappearing in the kitchen’s doorway without the trash. “You already aren’t that person, because you haven’t been…”
I turned my head to look over at him, to confirm that he was smiling. He was.
And suddenly, I could remember.
Noodles hit sauce like that and I felt a warm splash on my face.
The mic smells tonight.
Your shoes make slapping sounds as they cross the concrete, and when you get up there, you notice, before anything else, that the mic smells.
The air smells, too. Like Amber — and that guy, Jack Daniels. Like a green margarita; apple, lime, a pinch of salt.
The people here now look different, but they’re basically the same as the old ones; sitting at the bar with such ease it’s like they’re in their living room chairs. As you lift your guitar from its case, you hear these people talking to the girl behind the bar like she’s Heather Locklear; so gorgeous and witty… so beautifully alive on their television screens. And there’s the smoke, still. Everybody still smokes here.
You put some reverb on, adjust the mic’s volume, tilt it toward you. The stage feels roomier than you remember. You discover you can’t change the stage lighting – a queasy yellow that makes you think of flies. That’s alright. You gingerly step over an XLR cable and notice someone’s stuck a fake plant in the corner. It looks alright, too.
In your mind now, you can hear someone counting down from five and see one of those floor cameras creeping toward you… we’re rolling, they say. You place your fingers on your fretboard, in the familiar shape of a bar chord, barely feeling the nickel underneath your callouses, and then you look over to your right, because you can’t help it; the saxophone’s still gone. Of course it is. You, personally, kicked it off of the stage three years ago… I mean, Jesus; do you ever really know what you want, who you are, what you’re doing… anything at all?
With a buzzed amplifier behind you and a wasted mic in front, a different and lucid version of you turns on their radio. You sing a song, and another, and another, and another, and another…