"You think we're gonna be okay?"
I look at her, and I wonder how she can ask something like that. You know that expression, "there's no such thing as a stupid question?" Bullshit. There's all kinds of stupid questions.
Can a donkey operate a jetpack?
Do I want to know what this hotdog is made of?
Do you think we're going to be okay?
Because we, we aren't going to be okay. She is, I'm not. It's that simple, and it's painfully obvious.
Here's what we did this afternoon--met at Dairy Queen around noon. She got a Sprite, because she had a lot of studying to do, and caffeine makes her pee. I got a steak finger basket and an extra-large vanilla Coke, because I was planning on smoking weed, and I wanted something to munch on, and a big-ass drink.
We drove out to the lake, discussing the numb bullshit that's life when you're a senior in high school. We found a secluded area by the water, and she took pictures of me while I smoked a joint, because she's way into photography, but I'm the only one who doesn't get weird when she starts taking pictures. Polaroids, because you don't want to get law-breaking film developed in a small town. And then she sat at the end of the dock and studied, and I sat beside her, and I ate my food and drank my big-ass vanilla Coke, and I wrote for a while, but writing sucks when you have to hold the pad in your lap and it keeps sliding down.
So instead of writing, I cut the seatbelt out of my car and sewed it to my coat. One part was attached to the left-side shoulder, the other side was attached to the right-side pocket. In theory, I would be able to buckle myself into my coat, therefore I would always be safe.
In reality, seatbelts are heavy as fuck, and it made the coat awkward and uncomfortable. But it's the thought that counts, right? I strapped myself in and sat down beside her.
Three hours had passed. I smoked a cigarette, and I used the ash to write a poem in my notebook with my finger. It smelled awful, so I ripped that page out and caught it on fire with the last of my cigarette. I threw the wad of paper into the lake just as it burned out.
"You ever wonder what we're gonna do with our lives?" she asked.
"You're going to end up writing speeches for some liberal, hippie-ass president," I told her. "I'm going to get shot as a hostage in a bank robbery gone wrong. It'll be on laundry day, so I'll probably be wearing some hideous outfit, like M.C. Hammer pants and a t-shirt about the Gulf War."
"Did you just come up with that off the top of your head? It's kind of specific."
"Predicting the future is a lot of just playing the odds game. Chances are, I'm going to spend 90% of my life putting off washing clothes. That outfit, I'll probably wear it once a week, easy."
"But why would you be going into a bank?"
"Probably to try to keep them from repossessing my car or something, I don't know."
"I don't want to write for the president."
"Yes you do--just not this president. Deep down, you love your country, but you're too much of a liberal douchebag to admit that what it really needs is a kick to the ass. So you'll find some candidate who preaches his everyone-gets-a-trophy nonsense, and you'll climb aboard his bullshit train before it leaves the station. He'll win, because we're a country full of weaklings, these days, and you'll suddenly be writing for the president. He'll realize your talent, because you've been with him from the start, and you'll be his main speech writer."
"And what was it you were going to do, again?"
"Die as a hostage. Which is really too bad, considering how I really want to die."
"So close, and yet so far."
To understand my ideal way to die, you have to watch that movie "Total Recall." There's this part where Arnold's running up this packed escalator, and he yells something like, "Get down!"
Everybody does, except this one guy, he's all confused. He looks around as everyone else dives to the floor, and he's suddenly riddled with bad guy bullets. Arnie grabs the dude and commences to use him as a fucking shield. Bullets are just budda-budda-budda-budda, so fast, the guys convulsing as they shoot him. And then, then as like a final disrespect or something, Arnie picks the dude up and hurls him at the bad guys.
I watched that scene when I was twelve years old, and I turned to her, to my best friend, and I said, "That's how I'm going to die."
So she knew about how I wanted to die.
This thing about getting killed in a bank, that's like wanting to be a graphic artist and settling for a job placing ads in a local newspaper.
What you need to understand is that there was a ton of silence after that. Me and her, sitting at the end of the dock, just as the sun sets in that special way that makes an ugly-shit lake look like something wonderful.
She took my hand in hers, and I hoped this wasn't some kind of friendship test. Because here's the deal, right? I'm her best friend, and I love her and respect her, but I'm also like seventeen years old and want to fuck everything with a hole and a heartbeat.
But it was worse than a test. It was a question. A stupid question.
I stare out at the lake, but the sun's settled into the under half of the world, all the beautiful colors are gone, and it's a just a fuck-ugly body of water surrounded by shit-smelling mud and algae once again.
"Of course we're gonna be okay," I tell her, because at some point, you have to lie to everyone, even your best friend in the world, who you never, ever lie to.
"Don't patronize me," she says. "It's a fair question."
"It's not a fair question, it's a stupid question."
"What makes it stupid?"
"Because you know I'm not going to be okay," I tell her. It comes out before I have a chance to self-censor, before I can come up with something witty, or at least vague.
"I had a dream about you last night."
"Please tell me we were covered in vanilla pudding and searching for our clothes through a mob of naked women."
"I dreamed you fell in love."
"I was happy for you. I can't even describe how happy I was for you. It made my heart warm, just seeing it. I realized something, when I saw the way you smiled at her and the way she smiled at you back. I realized it in the dream, but it's true in real life, too."
She stops talking. I glance over, seeing if she's just pausing for dramatic effect or what. She's staring out at the same ugly lake as I am, but she doesn't see it through the same haze of cynicism and anger I do. She loves this place, this town, this lake, this world. She isn't pausing for dramatic effect. She's chewing the corner of her bottom lip, the way she always does when she's trying to say something just right, when she's piecing the words together in an exact way.
"I've always wanted to save you, but I've known for a long time that I wouldn't be enough. I used to think I could do it. I think if it was just your dad doing what he does and your mom doing what she does, and all the crap that has happened, I think I could have done it, I could have pulled you along with me, out of the misery. It wouldn't be easy, but that's what friends do."
I take my hand away from hers and light a cigarette. I don't really want one, but I need to do something, and I don't know what to say. I feel stupid wearing this dumbass seatbelt coat, but it's even colder now that the sun's gone down, and I don't want to sit here shivering while I'm trying to act tough.
"But then something happened," she says. "You started hating yourself. More than your parents ever did. That's when I realized that my love wouldn't be enough."
"You figured this out in your dream?"
"Yeah, I guess. I knew it anyway, probably, but I've never admitted it. But I saw you in love, and I knew that you'd be okay. This girl, she would be enough to pull you through your self-loathing."
"Sounds like you read too many fairy tales growing up."
She doesn't respond to my ribbing, and I immediately wish I hadn't said anything. There are ducks quacking on the other side of the lake, a sound that has always sounded like drunken laughter to me. Did they hear, I wonder? My stupid attempt at a joke? Are they laughing at me?
"It was a strange dream, because it seemed to last so long. You ever have ones like that? Like you're watching a movie, and time passes, but you don't sit through any of the boring stuff. That's how this one was, kind of. Years passed, we got out of high school, went to college, and all the time, you fell in love with her more everyday. Just being around the two of you made life seem better."
"We all went to the same college?"
"No. You guys went to Austin. I didn't want to go too far from home, so I went to Tech. Still, we saw each other a lot. You seemed like a different person, you know?"
Different from what, I wonder? To me, happy people seem gullible, sterile. Clean and clueless, and something I've despised for as long as I can remember. Is that what I was in her dream? Is that what she would want me to be? Instead of asking, I use the butt of my cigarette to light a new one. I flick the spent filter out into the lake, where, amazingly, it hits water and dies with a hiss.
"I love you for who you are," she says, answering my unasked question. "But when you love someone, you want them to be happy."
"You happy?" I ask. We've known each other for years, and in that time, I've ranted and raved about how stupid happy people are. How naive. I was never talking about her or her family, but I guess I've known they were happy. How could I not?
"I'm pretty happy."
"You think I'm stupid?"
"You know I don't think that. So what happened? In the dream?"
"We got out of college, and the two of you were going to get married. I was the maid of honor. I went with her when she tried on wedding dresses. I helped you guys pick out a location. I spent hours on the phone with both of you, talking you through it. And I loved every second of it, because it felt right, it felt wonderful that the two of you had found each other.
"And then, the day of the wedding, I went back to make sure she was okay. She wasn't expecting me."
She stops talking. It's pretty much dark, now, and instead of looking anything like a body of water, the lake looks like an undulating oil spill.
"Let me guess--you found her fucking some other guy."
"Nope. I found out what she really was."
"And what was that?"
She's silent for a long time. Long enough for me to look over and see the tears streaking her face. Still staring out at the lake, still chewing her bottom lip, still trying to figure out the right way to say what she needs to say. Finally, she looks over at me and shrugs, apparently settling for whatever words come next.
"She was Death. I saw her real face only for a second, and then it changed back into the beautiful girl that I'd first met. Her black robes melted into the wedding gown that I'd helped pick out. And she smiled. She wanted me to see, I knew it. And she said, 'There's nothing you can do. He'll always love me more than he loves you.'
"That's when I woke up."
I want another cigarette, but that'd mean using my lighter, and right now, it's too dark for her to see my watery eyes. I don't want that to change. I don't know when the tears started bubbling up, or why. But they're there now, hot and embarrassing and stupid.
I guess I was hoping for a happy ending, I don't know.
The jacket, this stupid jacket, I feel it tugging on me, reminding me of my idiocy. I don't fuck with the seatbelt latch, just yank it all over my head, like taking off a shirt. The metal buckle hits my lip as I pull it off, smashing flesh against teeth. I hurl it into the lake, there's no such thing as safety.
"I'll see you later," I tell her as I make my way down the dirt trail. All I can taste is blood, and it tastes like it always does--like I've done something wrong.
"You leaving me here?"
"Keys are in the car. I'll pick it up at your house tomorrow."
"What about you?"
"It's six miles."
"I'll make it," I tell her, and it sounds like a lie. I don't care, I just walk. Please don't follow me, please don't follow me, please don't follow me.
I walk past the car, across the broken asphalt road, into the woods on the other side.
I crouch down into the brush and I cry. I don't know why. Just stupid. I curl up on the ground and I cry and I pretend like I was never born, like I'm nothing.
Posted under Short Stories on 6/07/10