“We could have been a movie together. We should do that next.”
I stare down at her, wondering if she’s joking. At this point, I’m not sure what would be worse—a sick joke, or the look of assurance that I see on her face.
Life isn’t like the movies would have us believe. On the surface, we all pretend to know this. Deep down, we don’t believe it at all. All of us think there will be some sort of happy ending; a discovered soul mate, a winning lottery ticket, a chance to save the world from certain destruction.
It’s ridiculous, of course it is. Everyone knows that life isn’t like the movies. But deep down, everyone believes that it will be.
The blood’s running down my leg faster than I would like. I mean, no blood at all would be best, but since that clearly isn’t an option, slow-running, not-an-artery blood would be better than this. I’ll more than likely bleed out from the wound, but I need a little more time. Just a little more time.
It’s an irritating thing, this gash in my leg. It’s a hindrance. It’s painful. The warm liquid makes it feel like I’ve pissed myself. At this point, a tourniquet is a joke. You have a leg wound like this, you just better hope the son of a bitch responsible is close enough that you can take him out with you.
The son of a bitch responsible, she’s resting her head in my lap, looking more dazed by the second, talking about how we could have been a movie together.
“Don’t let ‘em fool ya—they’re all crazy.” This was my father’s response to just about anything relating to women: “Where’s your wife?”
“Went to the grocery store to get some milk.”
“Don’t let ‘em fool ya—they’re all crazy.”
Or maybe: “What’s your wife doing with that gun pointed at you?”
“I think she’s going to shoot me.”
“Don’t let ‘em fool ya—they’re all crazy.”
The above scenarios are fictional, of course—I’ve never been married. But I think you get the point. Almost any time you referred to a woman in front of my father, he’d throw that little nugget of wisdom in before the conversation went any further. After years of hearing that shit, you’d think I would’ve been a little better prepared for what happened.
The thing about crazy, though, is even if you know it’s there, you can’t know what it’ll do next.
Plus, my dad was pretty much nuts, too, so you had to take any wisdom he imparted unto you with a grain of salt.
My mom left when I was five years old. Mostly, what I remember about her is the gun battle that ensued between her and my father the day she left.
I was sitting in a patch of dirt under a tree, playing with some toy cars, when I heard the yelling. They were very vocal people, my parents, so this was nothing new. I only looked up when I heard the gunshot.
My dad flew out the back door, holding onto his ass. He ran across the dirt driveway that led to the barn, and dove behind his pickup just as my mom crashed out the door. She fired in his direction, and I heard the buckshot hit his front fender, like gravel thrown against a tin building. She was too far away to do much damage with the shotgun, but it seemed to be a problem she would remedy before he was able to pull the hunting rifle from the gun rack in the back window of his truck.
She stalked across the yard as my father frantically loaded shells into his rifle. He stood up and fired a shot—it went high and to the left, catching the rain gutter on the corner of the house. That shot wasn’t enough to scare her.
She fired and blew out the windshield of the pickup, as well as the driver-side window. My dad had ducked down just before she let loose, and he stood up as she pumped another shell into the chamber.
His second shot took off her right ear, and that was when she decided she better get some cover. He swore to me later that he had just been trying to scare her, but I knew for a fact that that particular rifle pulled just a bit to the right. He’d been aiming right between her eyes, whether he wanted to admit it or not.
My mom sprinted towards the house, but when she heard the rifle cock, I guess she realized she wouldn’t have enough time, and dove behind the propane tank.
“Shoot me now, you sumbitch, you’ll blow up our whole house, prob’ly kill your own self, too!”
“Better than livin’ with you for another damn minute!” He yelled, and fired again. He aimed really high, though, and the kitchen window exploded. My mom stood up, fired one more shot, and finished her run to the back door. She made it inside just as another shot from my dad’s rifle took out the door frame. Seconds passed, and then the battered Ford Escort in front of the house rattled to life. She drove across the pasture in front of our house, firing a pistol out the window, hitting my dad in leg, and hitting his truck the other five times. She was a crack-shot, my mom.
“I’ll come back for ya baby!” She screamed out the window at me. “I’ll come back for ya and take you away from that damn maniac!”
That was the last time I ever saw my mother.
Our nearest neighbors were five miles away, and they tended to mind their own business, anyway, so the cops never got involved. My dad went down the road to the horse doctor to get the bullet pulled out of his leg and get sewn up.
“Don’t let ‘em fool ya,” he told me when he got home. By this time, it was dark, and I was sitting in the kitchen, looking at the shards of glass on the floor and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “They’re all crazy.”
He laughed then, laughed until tears started coming out from his eyes, and then he got a bottle of whiskey out from under the sink and went to the front porch. He sat out there drinking and smoking until he passed out in his rocking chair.
So maybe I should have known from the first time I met her that I was in deep shit. Or maybe it was just inevitable.
Her name was Toby. That’s what she told everyone, anyway. And she was glorious. She had too much life for a small town, but she wasn’t one of those people who always talked about getting the hell out of here, about getting to the big city. She made the most out of wherever she was.
And when she made the most out of it, it was a thing to behold.
We met a couple years after my mom left, so I guess that would have been second grade or so. Her folks moved into the Harris place, about two miles down the road. It had been deserted for as long as I could remember, and there were rumors that the place was haunted. They moved in, repainted the house, tore down the barn, and plowed up the fields. The first time my dad and I went to visit, I was stunned—it looked like the house had been lived in forever. You never would have guessed that it had been empty and lonely for the last two decades.
My dad introduced himself to her parents, and then introduced me. “Toby’s upstairs, last room on the right, if you’d like to introduce yourself,” her mom told me. I expected this Toby to be a boy, so I was caught a little off-guard when I peered into the bedroom and saw a little girl leaning out the window.
She jumped back into the room, a guilty expression on her face.
“I’m looking for Toby,” I said. “You seen him?”
“I’m Toby,” she said. “How’d you get in here?”
“You mom and dad. My dad’s downstairs. We’re your neighbors from down the road.” I was a little disappointed that instead of a new playmate, my neighbor was just some boring girl.
She looked at me for a few seconds and then walked back to the window. “C’mere. You think if we jumped off the roof right here, we could catch that tree?”
I walked over to the window, my heart racing. I’m not sure if it was the idea of jumping off a building like Batman, or if I was already in love.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “You’d have to get a good running start.”
“You wanna go first or second?”
You wanna go first or second? That was always the question. Not wanting to do it at all was never an option. She wasn’t that kind of person. If you needed that last option, she didn’t need anything to do with you. There were very few people who were able to keep up with her over the years, and in the end, I was the only one.
I look down at her red hair, the hair that’s usually blond, when it isn’t soaked through with the blood leaking from my leg wound, and I think about that first day. I think about how it’s really too bad that I fell in love with her right then and there, and I think about how many people escaped with their lives over the years because their love wasn’t strong enough.
I went first that day, I don’t know why. I didn’t make it. I felt the tree bark scrape against my palms as gravity clutched me, pulled me, slammed me into the thin brown grass at the base of the tree. The force knocked the air out of my lungs, so I couldn’t even cry at first. When I could, I wailed. My dad loaded me up into his pickup, and drove me home.
Once there, I explained what had happened, and he paddled me, and I ended up crying some more. Then he sat me down at the kitchen table and got two beers out of the refrigerator. He popped off the tops and put one down on the table in front of me.
“I thought you’d be a little older when we had this talk. I had to whup you, ‘cause kids are stupid, and the only way you learn anything is through whuppins.” He took a big swallow of his beer and motioned for me to do the same. I took a drink, feeling pride and amazement and fear. I wasn’t sure if this was a privilege or a continuation of my punishment. The taste did nothing to convince me either way.
“In this case, I don’t think you’ll learn anything ‘bout jumpin’ from places you shouldn’t be jumpin’ from. Will ya?”
“So that pretty little thing from down the road, she tells you jump off a goshdamned house again, you won’t do it? Don’t lie to me now—I’ll know.”
“I’d do it.”
“‘Course you would. Hell, her momma was single and told me to do it, I’d be in the same boat as you. Cute little blonds, they’ll end up bein’ the death of this species, you ask me. The whuppin’, it wasn’t to teach you not to jump off roofs. Long as there’s a cutie to tell you to jump, you’ll jump, no matter how many whuppins you get. But I need to teach you, and the whuppin’ll help.”
He took another drink of his beer, and I did the same. It tasted bad, but good, too. It tasted like grownup, and I knew that this talk was grownup, too. My dad looked down at me, and he smiled, and I knew that he loved me, and it was a great feeling.
“Don’t let ‘em fool ya,” he said. “They’re all crazy. “That’s the first thing you need to learn. The second is this: as long as there’s a woman, there’s gonna be a man jumpin’ when she says to jump. What you have to figure is the right woman to jump for. That make any sense?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry—it will later. Hopefully, you’ll understand it ‘fore you get burned too bad.”
He finished off the rest of his beer, and I did the same. We both belched and then we both laughed. He scruffed up my hair. “I’m glad we had this talk.”
“Me, too,” I said.
He leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. That was the first time I remember him doing that, and he never did it again.
“I gotta go feed the pigs. You go take your bath, get to bed.”
You wanna go first or second? I don’t know how many times I heard those exact words over the years. It wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t all harmful. It wasn’t always even significant. But sometimes, it was. Sometimes, it was world-changing, even if it was just my world.
The first time I kissed someone, those words preceded it. The first time I saw a vagina, the first time I showed my penis. The first time I jumped from the top of a barn into a pile of snow twenty feet below, the first time I drove a tractor. All of this before I even made it out of grade school.
She was named after her grandfather. His name was Tobias. Her name was October. She got pissed if you called her anything other than Toby. She was scary, sometimes, and sometimes I got butterflies in my stomach when I walked down the dirt road to her house. Sometimes I dreaded hearing her knock on my front door. But no matter what, I always had more fun when I was with her.
The world seemed brighter, more colorful, more intense when I was with her. Tastes were more defined, sounds were more specific, even textures seemed to be more real. Every memory was etched instead of drawn with chalk.
She brought trouble, sometimes, but she brought life. Everything else was just a way to pass the time.
We grew up.
Freshman year of high school, we fucked after a football game. It was Homecoming, and everyone wanted to go out for burgers after the game. She got bored before our food arrived and told me to take her home. Once we got out onto the country roads leading to our houses, she changed her mind.
“Pull over here,” she said.
I didn’t ask any questions. We had been making out with each for years at this point. She made out with other boys, and sometimes I made out with other girls. We weren’t girlfriend/boyfriend. We weren’t even friends with benefits. We were what we were.
I was in love with her. But that’s like being in love with a cyclone—you can’t expect it to love you back, you can’t expect it to stay true. The most you can hope for is that you’ll get picked up occasionally, and be put down without getting hurt too bad.
She said jump, I jumped. The only question was whether I was going first or second.
When she said pull over, I pulled over, hoping for a handjob, at least, maybe even a blowjob. When she said she wanted to “do it,” I was both incredibly surprised and not surprised at all.
There was fumbling and a bit of awkwardness and when we were done, staring up at the stars from the bed of my pickup, she said, “If we could do that right, it could be really fun.”
I didn’t take offense, because she was what she was, and I had been with her for too long to be hurt by the truth. She was sweet but blunt. When you’re that full of life, it’s hard to lie, I think, even if you’re doing it to spare someone’s feelings. I had long ago learned that she wasn’t trying to be malicious with her honesty. It was just the fastest way through the maze.
“Maybe if I gave you head first,” I told her. “And I’ve heard that the more a guy does it, the longer he can last.”
“We’ll have to do it more.”
And we did.
We went to college. I followed her, of course, only marginally aware that I was following her. It’s said that college is the time of experimentation. Toby was a big fan of that philosophy.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m studying this algebra.”
“Well, stop it. You know that girl Mandy?”
“The one from the pizza place?”
“She’s down with a threesome.”
Because it was never a question of “if.” It was only a question of when. She set up the threesome with Mandy from the pizza place and the one with Bret from the gym. She set up a study group so I could pass algebra and she set up the party where I could forget all about algebra.
She set up our first job interviews, as soon as we graduated.
“Hey, guess what would be fun?”
“What would be fun?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“The Big Apple, baby!”
It was never if, it was when. This was life with Toby. Do you want to go first or second? This was life with Toby. Not going was never an option. This was life with Toby.
One night, we’re out celebrating her promotion, walking down some street, I was too blitzed to even know which one, and she said, “We should rob a bank.”
I just looked at her, because this was New York City, and their banks have anti-bank-robber technology that we couldn’t even imagine, much less hope to overcome, and I was just praying that I would be able to talk her out of this idea, because saying no was not an option.
She passed out on the cab ride home, waking up just long enough to grope my crotch as we passed a couple of nuns on our way across the street to my apartment.
Lying there in that strange nightmarish/dreamlike state you can only be in when you just got finished screwing with a terrible hangover. I was staring at the ceiling, wondering what was wrong with my brain to make it seem like my walls were breathing, when she spoke.
“Not here, you know.”
“What?” I tried to remember if we had been in the middle of a conversation.
“We wouldn’t rob the bank here.”
“We’d go back home.”
“We fly into Oklahoma City, right? Drive straight through Texas into Kansas, and that’s where we start. Three or four Kansas banks, in those podunk towns we used to see on our road trips, and then work our way back. Two banks in Texas, close to the Oklahoma border. Head south, hardcore, another couple of banks, then catch our flight.”
“Seems like that might be a noticeable pattern.”
“We could switch it up, make it less obvious. Bury that shit, catch a plane back, nobody would ever even have a reason to suspect us.”
“You’re forgetting the part where we don’t have the first clue about robbing banks.”
“We could find out. How hard could it be?”
“If it was easy, everybody’d do it.”
“We could do it.”
“Sure we could,” I told her, “But it wouldn’t be worth it.”
“You don’t think?”
“Nah. I like not having to run from cops all the time. I bet we’d have to stop partying so much.”
“Because what if you slipped up? Instant doom.”
“Hmmm.” She dozed off. I looked out the window at the rising sun, wondering if I should go out for breakfast or just hope that the sleep alone would sober me up enough for whatever was in store for me next. When she woke up, she didn’t mention it again. Life with her was like that, sometimes, where you knew that you just barely dodged a bullet.
“Is this how you thought it would be?”
I look down at her, a little surprised that she’s still alive. Her breathing got all quiet a few minutes ago, and I figured she’d just faded out. I should have known better.
“Shh, don’t talk.”
“I want to. Probably my last chance—I don’t want to miss it.”
“We’re gonna be okay,” I tell her, and stroke her hair. It sticks to my fingers, so I stop.
“That’s ridiculous. So answer: this how you thought it’d be?”
“Nah. I mean, I’d be lying if I said I was way surprised. But nobody thinks they’re going out like this, do they?”
“I thought we’d go out like the old-time gangsters. Any of the old-time gangsters go out like this, you think?”
“I don’t know.” She has a tear running out of her eye, and I hate to see it. I’ve seen her cry, but there’s always been strength behind her tears. Intense anger, or powerful sadness or immense pain; always a strong emotion, a force. This single tear, it’s sad and alone and pathetic. It doesn’t suit her, so I wipe it away. The blood leaves a smudge like war paint, and I find it much more to my liking.
“You wish you never met me?” She asks.
“Don’t be a moron.”
It was stupid. You reach a time in your life, you’re supposed to know better. There’s a point where the reward of foolishness is far outweighed by the sense of security you get from not being an idiot.
You ignore that point, you end up in jail or killed. You can only disregard self-preservation for so long, and then the world gets sick and damn tired of your reckless bullshit. You end up as one of those fat guys getting thrown to the ground on “Cops,” or on some filth-covered basement floor, bleeding out next to the woman you love.
You never knew how things would go when she was around. Sometimes, nothing happened. Usually nothing happened. She’d call up, ask if you wanted to go out for brunch, and you’d go. Shoot the shit, pay the check, and go home. Ta-daa, that’s life.
Other times, things would happen. Maybe a series of horrible events that made you never want to talk to her again. Or maybe a series of events that were so awe-inspiring and wonderful that you wanted to spend every second of your life around her, just in case something like that happened again.
Or maybe I was just in love, I don’t know.
It was a nice day, you know? One of the first nice days, after dealing with an exceptionally horrible winter. One of those winters where you walk outside and you can feel your blood freeze a little, and it’s too easy to imagine your heart pumping slush through your veins. She called me up, asked me if I wanted to go to the park, and although I had a shitpile of work to do, I said yes. Like I always did.
She had packed a picnic, and I laughed when I saw her standing there at the subway stop with her little picnic basket. She looked so adorable—the innocent little girl among the wilds of the city. I hung out the door and called to her, and she skipped down the platform, and kissed me on the cheek as she stepped into the car.
“You mug the Ranger?” I asked her.
“Hey, hey,” she said, in a terrible Yogi Bear impression.
And then we were at the park, and she was spreading the blanket and handing me a block of cheese wrapped in wax paper, and telling me to cut it up, and telling me that I had to try this new mustard she found.
Being with her like that, it was easy to forget the rest of the world. It was me and it was her, and everything else was just a backdrop. We ate our crackers and cheese, and our meat and mustard, and we drank some wine. And then she bought a football from some kid who was walking by, and we played catch.
Evening came, the air cooled down a little more than was enjoyable, and the lights in the park flickered to life. We packed everything up and decided to walk a few blocks to the next subway station, because even though it was a little chilly, it was a beautiful evening.
It happened so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to freak out. One second, we were walking down the street, holding hands, talking about some movie, and then we were on the other side of the street, my ears ringing, and everyone around me either screaming or sprawled on the ground.
We were still holding hands, until I noticed that I was on fire. I yanked my jacket off and threw it onto the ground and then started screaming at her was she okay, was she okay. I saw her lips moving, but she wasn’t making any sound. It didn’t occur to me that she was making sound just fine, and I was deaf.
She grabbed my face, and I saw her mouth the words, “Shut up.” So I shut up. I just heard the ringing at first, but then the other sounds started filtering in: the screams, the sirens, the horns honking and car alarms blaring. Everything smelled like dust and sewage and burning.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “An explosion, obviously. Are you okay?”
“I think so. Are you?”
“I think.” She stared across the street at the burning building. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah.” It’s weird to see a burning building. These were apartments—brownstones is what everyone called them—and it looked like someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to them, digging out random sections with an almost sinful lack of concern.
She looked at me. “There are little kids in there. Third floor—look.”
I looked. Two little kids, standing there at the edge of everything, looking like a couple of wide-eyed dolls.
“We have to do something,” she said. There was the option of going first or going second, but there was never the option of not going at all. One, two, three, four, you know the drill, now beg for more.
“I thought it’d be some sort of a gunfight,” she says.
“You need more drama than this?” I wave my arm around at the flaming rafters, and the burning furniture, at the collapsing floor hanging just above us.
“Well, I guess it’ll do in a pinch.” She laughs, and blood bubbles out onto my leg.
The kids made it, of course. There was never even a question, once she decided that we were going to save them. We worked our way into and up through the burning, falling building, like a couple of lunatics who don’t understand the difference between a video game and real life. We pulled the kids away from the crumbling edge, and we handed them down to the arriving firemen. And then it was our turn to be rescued, and the entire structure collapsed inward, and instead of being on the third floor, we were suddenly in the basement.
Instead of getting rescued, we got screwed.
She got pinned under an enormous wooden beam, and you could tell just by looking at her that she wasn’t going to make it. The beam, it crushed her diagonally, up one leg, across her chest, catching her shoulder, leaving her a crumpled paper doll.
I was better, but not much. Lousy gash on my leg, and a piece of something sticking through me, and it hurt to crawl, but I had to get to her.
“I love you,” I say.
“Yeah, I know,” she says. “You’d have to, to put up with my shit.”
I hear the firemen yelling, telling us to hold on, telling us we’re gonna make it. They look like shadows swimming in the burning air.
“I always thought we’d go out in a gunfight,” she says.
“You never got us any guns.”
“I love you, too. Did I ever tell you that?”
“You told me one time.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
I smile down at her, knowing exactly what she means.
“But I mean it now,” she says, and I feel her grasp loosening. I squeeze her hand.
“That’s convenient, telling me while we’re trapped in a burning building.”
“I’ve loved you for a long time. You knew, right?”
“Yeah, I knew.”
“It’s still good to tell you. I wonder why I didn’t do that before?”
“Waiting for the right opportunity, probably. Hopeless romantic.”
She laughs a little, and more blood bubbles up out of her. “Yeah. Anyway, I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I kiss her on the forehead, and she’s gone, and I think about what a stupid fragile thing life is. What a stupid, fragile, unpredictable thing.
The firemen are closer, but still too far away, still yelling about how they’re coming to save us, yelling at us to hold on, yelling that it’s going to be okay. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
I kiss her again, and whisper to her that yes, we would be a great movie, and we should do that next. My leg doesn’t hurt anymore, and the thing sticking through me doesn’t hurt anymore, either. Nothing does.
You wanna go first or second? Not going was never an option. I rest my cheek against hers and I close my eyes.
This story can be found in the book "Not Quite Hate." If you would like to order it for way cheap (or download the entire book for free, then hopefully buy it), you can click here.