Chapter Four: The Deep End
Stanley’s Bar and Grill sat on the corner of Eleventh Street. An absolute dive with piss-poor service and flat taps, it was beyond simple for Alanna to park right in front. They stepped out in heels as I followed the cousins into the dark secluded corner of the city that both were beyond familiar with. Alanna was the regular that bartenders still stopped to stare at. She wouldn’t take all that much time getting ready, and yet third and fourth impressions came rolling in from all angles as we entered through the brown splintered door.
I caught a few glimpses of sadness as we passed those who were slowly sinking in their stools. Old men with divorce papers and children who didn’t answer their phones, aging hipsters finally deciding that the slow spark of the Chicago club scene was no longer in the least bit appealing. They wanted to be known and not simply in a one-night stand sort of way. A girl with cherry red hair, blue eyeliner and used lips sat alone in black stockings and matching boots at the far end of the bar. A few suits from the other end were commenting on how easy she looked. I tried not to listen as we passed, having already grown more than tired of offhanded comments from those who never took the time to think. I had already become disillusioned to all the different variations of assholes from each nearby town in college. They were all uniquely the same never taking the time to revel in change like the rest of us.
Muriel dated a few at the beginning. I remember Paul the best. It was a unique form of torture as I played the friend card, while sitting on her gray couch, passing joints to him and all of his loser counterparts. They would laugh out of character and later discuss what the holdup was. Muriel was a complicated figment of many of our imaginations. While some could say that the shear depression would have been motivation enough for her to sleep with mostly anybody, it took time and precision to truly impact somebody so very good at pretending like she was complicated. Part of it was trust, although we were bad at it when the two of us were dating. I knew about a few late-night make-out sessions with guys who would give me subtle head nods at later social events. They looked content with themselves, and I felt like shit having put in all the time saying the sweetest of things never meant.
I kept subscribing to the idea that somebody such as myself who was reasonably honest and above everything else, worth it for somebody like Muriel to get lost in, still was a dying breed. I could see them all flipping past my picture in the endangered species catalogue. I was running from poachers with accurate eyes, all of whom were once again surrounding me in the abysmal jungle known as the bar. They didn’t really notice Amanda, or at least not to the degree that she wanted them to. The suits saw more potential in first measuring their dicks with somebody like me, and then going in for the kill. Combined conversations with the two young and stupid women who were dead set on getting drunk and forgetting about their highly troublesome and remotely confusing lives. It seemed to lack complications even from my point of view.
They passed it all with fleeting thoughts and walked up the nearby flight of stairs into a more secluded location. I stared at old movie posters and framed paintings of Al Pacino as I followed like a lost puppy. The upstairs contained a pool table and several empty places to sit and drown out the screams of drunken libidos and bad hair metal pouring out of the shiny red and silver jukebox stationed in the back corner.
I saw him instantly light up as she entered. Everett Hutchinson, the artist of all things Alanna. He knew her better than I ever could and would always be a specific part of who she was. They were friends from sixth grade on, lab partners, and later modern escapists together. She opened his eyes to a barrage of reckless activity; smoking joints on baseball diamonds, getting drunk on tall hills or at family barbecues. They would cheat on the majority of timed exams, and make sure to abuse all high school privileges. The library printer was always out of ink from printouts of obscene celebrity pictures, later thumb tacked to school bulletin boards. Instead of study hall they would make mad dashes for the parking lot, Alanna’s green machine offering some idealistic solace as they would bake out and listen to The Velvet Underground searching for reasons.
Weekends were for the most part spent together; the two of them showing up uninvited to illustrious high school get-togethers where the girls would make mix CDs of radio hits and the guys would try their best to hide protruding erections in the middle of the living room. It was beyond simple in the beginning as the first two years of hell were at least remotely memorable; every random occurrence worth more than a thousand words. Although, I could sense the cruel shift that had surfaced in both of them. Everett had eyes of fire, which were easily explained, and yet not taken lightly.
The boyfriends all hurt him in different ways. While Dave only lasted for that one summer, providing them both with deals on illustrious psychedelics to which, for the most part, they would take together and mindlessly wander around in nearby wooded areas and fields with no trespassing signs, there was still an underlying sense that the majority of Alanna’s mistakes got to him. He was the one staple in her life for all of high school, and yet college offered with it a barrage of new experiences both couldn’t ever fully grasp.
She thought she was in love with Julian. He had baby blue eyes, played guitar and would always take the time to stare deeply into whatever it was he fixated on. Alanna was the main objects of his affection for three years, before a few shots and the right kind of giggle made him see it all differently. Julian and Amy ran away together and would enjoy a fruitful life of mindless sex before eventually moving on again. Alanna was devastated and once again only Everett could pick up the shattered pieces, although he was starting to venture out of formed positions.
The college experience was somewhat varied for him, as random sex became like his duty. He was spiteful and all of them were nothing like her. Some were quiet and said the word love within the first few minutes of nomadic pleasure, and yet others took the time to fuck with his head, never to the same degree that she would, but usually with enough spiteful discourse to allow someone as passive as Everett Hutchinson to completely regret every decision he ever made.
He told Alanna he was in love with her on New Year’s Eve, both distorted enough to later talk about how utterly complicated it would be for the both of them if they lost each other over something stupid like sex. He was hurt, and both were lost with college degrees they didn’t know what to do with. They would sit in desk drawers for the duration of that spring, Alanna working double shifts at the restaurant, while Everett tried his hand at the family business. Used cars were less than appealing to somebody who merely dreamed of stealing keys and running away from it all.
Then finally after years of looks that spoke louder than words and introductions to potential mates both of which knew wouldn’t last, Everett and Alanna finally fell into one another at his parents’ house after a late Saturday night buying shots from Stanley. Both had to be quiet and whisper all their true feelings. The walls were beyond thin.
He looked more than alone with a half empty beer and a masked smile. All the surrounding tables were empty, that particular section of the city more or less dead to all those who were looking for something bigger than themselves. I was simply searching for a casual escape from my own long list of problems; the indecisiveness I used to bask in now slowly taking the last train to Clarksville. Home was the start of a brand a new period of my life. I was beyond fearful and didn’t need to think about any of them more than I should have. Alanna, Everett and Amanda were simply temporary void fillers. I wouldn’t remember all of our conversations the next week at my cold metal desk.
Alanna sat down first, acting as if it was all beyond casual. Amanda and I followed suit, the smoke from downstairs cigarettes already clinging to our clothes and leaving several kinds of distaste in our mouths.
“Hey, how long have you been here?”
“About a half hour.”
“Oh, well sorry we’re kind of late then.”
“It’s okay.” He could never be completely angry with her. It never worked like that. Everett didn’t glance over at me at first. I didn’t look like another tiresome explanation. The two of us were too much alike for that.
“Oh uh… This is Gail’s brother, Noah.”
“Oh right, the wedding. I almost forgot.”
“Well, it’s nothing to really look forward to.” I wanted my lack of enthusiasm to pierce all of their thoughts.
“I guess not. I’m Everett. Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” We shook out of habit, both of us raised by our parents to pretend like nothing big was ever happening.
“So do you guys wanna go get us drinks?” Amanda seemed beyond anxious.
“Yeah fine, what do you want?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Alanna didn’t look up from the table. Eye contact seemed like a problem.
“Shots would be good.” Amanda fixed her cleavage. Everett and I didn’t really notice.
“Alright fine, I guess we’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” I followed him back down the cracked stairs as both of us stood at the empty end of the bar. A few more faces had filtered in looking for their night’s meaning. I could already loosely hear the conversation between Alanna and Amanda from the table. They were discussing the awkward implications associated with every breath Everett took. His confusion circled both of us as we thought of what to order. Few words were spoken and little had to be discussed with the two of us. He had no idea of my intentions, and at that point neither did I.
While it appeared as if I was getting drunk out of principle, a long car ride and two strenuous days of butterflies in everyone’s stomach but mine, ahead of us, the truth of the matter was that, like Everett, I had become instantly hooked. Although, I wanted to appear different. I needed her to see me as somebody who wouldn’t always be there, waiting for apologies and ready to pick up the tab. I was the heartbroken younger brother with intentions to inflict some similar feelings of reality into all of them. Voices weren’t loud and heard, but rather muffled dissonant absences on all our empty plates. Love was only real in movies and greeting cards. All of us were meant to hurt each other.
“So where are you from again?”
“Just outside of Pittsburgh.”
“Oh, cool. So are you in college or…?”
“I just graduated.”
“Oh. Well what are you gonna do then?”
“I have no fucking clue man.”
“Well we’ve all been there.” He lifted his hand with a fifty in it and ordered a round of shots. Conversation wasn’t given the chance to continue as the rest of our hapless tour group wandered in with bloodshot eyes. Ronna Coar and Joel Lauer, the diamond couple of Alanna’s friends. Both were on their way to thirty, pretending as if each subsequent night spent in the dim city was a mere stepping stone to later greatness. Ronna wasn’t conventionally beautiful, but had a certain spark, some called it personality; I preferred the more proper terminology. She was decibel-shattering madness. Each phrase that spouted out of her mouth was meant to get under skin.
This quality was understandable, though, considering her profession. She needed to be true grit at times, as customers would commonly avoid voicing complaints when they were directed at Ronna. Joel was more or less the opposite. A lonesome cowboy with a brown beard and longer hair, he enjoyed looking everyone over twice. Joel could evaluate everybody’s true intentions without giving it a second thought. He had to be that way, as the Mini-mart was full of those searching for handouts and leftover answers. The regulars knew him, as the back door provided them with more common ground. Teenagers saw Joel as their savior. He would help them get laid, and if all else failed at least fucked up to a degree of perfect distance from the rest of their so-called dramatic lives.
Behind their smiling faces was Tracy Coar, Ronna’s roommate and longtime best friend. She was a year younger, and more or less completely reliant on the other two. Tracy was the one to cover shifts and pretend like the weight of life wasn’t in the least bit getting to her. She had been engaged once, only to later have it fall apart with lawsuits highlighting various forms of domestic abuse. She wasn’t in the least bit happy then, and without the other two would have been an untimely mess all together, sitting at the other end of the bar, not taking the time to fend off the suited strangers’ advances.
They all knew Everett better than he knew himself. They were the ones Alanna confided in; temporary sessions of bitching during cigarette breaks at the restaurant being somewhat of a routine. They all knew about the previous Saturday, how things had finally happened and now wouldn’t ever be the same. All three pretended like they were simply reuniting with an old friend, though. Nothing was bigger than any of them. It was a night to attempt to forget about lingering feelings and previous escapades with seemingly dire consequences.
“Well look at this fucking asshole right here.” Joel said as he gave Everett a quick hug. The two had a debauched understanding, the one often being asked to deal with the other. They bonded in their time spent waiting for the women in their lives to make decisions. Joel had it reasonably easy as Ronna was drawn to his particular brand of bullshit. He would preach to Everett about being somewhat bolder, although words of advice from a small-time drug dealer never seemed to filter in past the incessant humming. He had a long term plan and no simple way to simply let things go.
“I was wondering what was taking you guys so long.”
“Oh, well you know how it. Ya gotta meet a guy here, drive a guy there.”
“Yeah, I suppose I should have thought about that.”
“Well, it’s okay.”
“So where are the others?” Ronna seemed ready for a night of lazy unwinding with any and all females.
“They’re upstairs. I was just getting shots.”
“Who’s your friend?” Tracy gave me a look as if she was vaguely interested in figuring me out.
“Oh yeah, this is Noah. He’s Gail’s brother.”
“Oh, that’s right. The wedding. I almost forgot.” My sister’s big deal was a fleeting thought with all of them. I smiled at the shear perfection of it.
“So you’re here with Alanna then, huh?” Joel said, looking at me like a grand inquisitor.
“Uh yeah, I am.”
“Well cool. It’s good to meet you man.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“You don’t really look like your sister.” Ronna said, shuffling through her purse for some lipstick.
“Yeah, well we’re really nothing alike.”
“I guess that explains why you’re here with us.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” We waited mere moments for shots before Ronna and Tracy’s breasts served the cause better than Everett and I ever could. It always confused me, the fact that they sent us for drink they knew they would get faster themselves. Then again, it provided all women with the time to consider their options. Alanna had dozens that night as each passer-by lingered a little longer than expected, hoping for her to say something somewhat relevant to their own lives. I wasn’t the only man looking for substantial proof that she was real. They were everywhere.
The shots went down quick, all of us toasting better days and future excursions. It felt like family faster than the Brinker house ever could. They understood me in some vague sense of the word, and yet with the exception of Everett weren’t exactly the same breed. Joel was good at what he did, although his knowledge of mediocre media that the three of us swooned over the majority of the night, was more or less a dry well. Ronna and Tracy were the same way, as they didn’t really seem to care about any bigger issues, the predictability of modern art and people who were a part of it, only topics which they simply ignored, drowning away their thoughts in various sized of glasses.
While I had been lacking in creativity as of lately, the Muriel break-up reducing my literary edge to that of shear simplicity, there was still an underlying sense that I was socializing with the sitcom-watching crowd, all of us laughing at fart jokes with utter ease. Somebody as marvelous as Alanna didn’t necessarily fit with those people, and no matter how hard I tried to come up with an answer as to why she was so comfortable with them, there was predominately a list of blanks on my page.
It all became more clouded as the alcohol sunk in again. There wasn’t a completely clear path to walk that night as I began to spark numerous conversations with Tracy and Amanda. Their lives were somewhat the same, or at least on the verge of parallel notions. Jobs with no direction and each act leaning towards even more doubts about the human race. Men had been good at fucking them over, and without ever having a second thought about it. Everything we talked about brought forth the underlying sense that both had given up a long time ago.
Our positions became somewhat spread out as more late night tambourine men lingered into the upstairs area. I glanced over at Alanna in the middle of my third beer. I was pretending to listen to Ronna’s story of the day about a pregnant woman throwing a fit over a dirty fork. My head nods were in full synchronicity with Joel’s. Alanna looked bored talking to Everett about all the same subject matter, sipping her rum and coke and letting her eyes wander to neon fluorescents lining all the walls. I wasn’t sure if it would have been in poor taste to start the long and harrowing process of making my presence somewhat more significant with Alanna, and I didn’t care.
While I sympathized with Everett and his daily denial, I couldn’t help but feel that there was no longer a part of me that let incidents of varying magnitude pass by. I needed to talk to her, to pretend like I was falling to pieces while still maintaining my callous indifference towards everything that was happening that weekend. It was after twelve, we were all well on our way to piecing our head back together before the long drive back to structured civilization.
The opportunity presented itself in a matter of seconds as Joel walked over in front of the two, looking for a partner to buy the last round with. Everett paused briefly, looking into her eyes before taking the long trip around all the stationary alcoholics and walking back downstairs. Ronna decided it would be best if she looked after Tracy who was spinning along with the room, trying her best not to seem too flirty with a some douche bag frat guy, wearing metal letters around his neck. Amanda had already disappeared outside with somebody she claimed to know. I stood up from our now empty table, caught my balance and walked over next to her. Alanna was reasonably perfect at leaning against the wall, spinning the straw in her drink like she didn’t give a damn what was happening. I saw right through her at that moment, as from the very start of our encounter we were meant to take off together.
“Hey, are you having fun?”
“Uh yeah, sure. I’m pretty drunk, I think.”
“Yeah, well me too.”
“So how’s everything going with Everett?”
“You’re not asking me that right now.”
“Oh really, I’m not?”
“It’s just messy, is all. He hasn’t said anything about it, but it’s only a matter of time. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he does.”
“Well, I thought you said he wasn’t going to cause a scene with me here.”
“Well yeah, that’s the whole thing. I don’t think he will, but you haven’t exactly been right here, have you?”
“I figured it’d be weird if I was the one constantly at your side.”
“Not that weird Noah, not tonight anyway.”
“Well sorry if I’ve been sort of a letdown.”
“It’s okay.” She rummaged through her purse, before finding her pack of Marlboro lights and exhaling smoke with each sigh.
“I didn’t know you smoked.
“Only when I’m stressed, and we’re all being social.”
“I suppose that’s a legitimate explanation.”
“Yeah, trust me, it is. I’m surprised you don’t.”
“Yeah, well I never really took to it. I mean, weed’s one thing. There’s a substantial buzz from that, but all that bullshit propaganda about cigarettes that they feed you in like first grade sort of just sunk in with me.”
“Ya see, now that’s weird, because I wouldn’t have thought you were the type.”
“What do you mean, the type?” I shifted my weight, getting closer, as more bodies crowded around us, all being obnoxiously louder than the average bear, waiting for some variation of a fight to occur before last call. I would walk past them often on the long way home from Muriel’s, all those nights she didn’t feel like being in the least bit intimate. Part of me longed for fists thrown over the wrong girl, but instead I was, for the most part, exactly where I wanted to be, in love with my shallow infatuation, and always on call.
“The type to not give a shit. I mean, fuck cancer. It happens to non-smokers; why not speed up the process?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I’m just used to always doing what people tell me to.”
“Which is why you’re gonna help me out with Everett tonight, right?”
“I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Just stay next to me. I mean, well… Ya know, we really don’t even know each other that well.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I was asking all your friends about your most embarrassing stories.”
“Yeah, not really.”
“But uh…Don’t you have like a million things to ask me?”
“I have a few, but I’m not sure if we have the time to bring them up right now.”
“Really, why’s that?” Her eyes got wide like I was somebody worth wasting time on.
“Because he’ll be back soon.”
“Look how crowded it is Noah. I’d say we have another solid five minutes or so to shoot the shit about all my friends.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“So what is it?” She was playing devil’s advocate, and I was far too drunk to argue with her. I was surprised that I didn’t let everything out right then. I could see myself in a parallel universe leaning in and kissing her, or bringing up all the highly sinful thoughts that had entered my mind the second she interrupted my moping session in the basement. Instead I started slow, and waited for chemistry to overtake us.
“Okay uh… Well what do you have a degree in?”
“You mean, what did I go to college for?”
“I was an art major, why?”
“Well, why are you working at some shitty restaurant and hanging out with all of these people then?” She paused for a second, as if I was questioning every aspect of her very existence. I felt like everyone’s father and yet it was what had been on my mind all night. She had to fill me in, to make it so I could understand. Alanna was a master of explanations.
“Man, you don’t get it yet, do you?”
“See you’ve just graduated, so you think you have to maintain some stuck-up hipster viewpoint on everybody you meet, like if they don’t listen to a certain band or haven’t read a certain book, they’re not worth it.”
“It’s not like that exactly. It’s just… I guess what I’m trying to say is, why are your friends nothing like you?”
“I don’t know. I mean, Everett and I are a lot alike.”
“That’s my next question. First just and try and help me understand.”
“Noah, these people are worth it. They’re not judgmental pricks. We get along great, and they don’t need me to be their inspiration, ya know? We just get fucked up together. It’s not any more complicated than that.”
“Of course, I’m sure you expected all of them to be more like you and your friends.”
“I don’t really have too many friends anymore.” It was a true statement hidden behind what I thought some could consider mystery. She wasn’t buying into it.
“Really, how come?”
“I lost a lot of them because of Muriel, and others for various reasons. It’s all sort of fucked up.”
“Well, what else were you gonna ask me?”
“Why aren’t you with Everett?”
“That’s how you segue way, just like that?”
“Well it’s just that he seems like a great guy, and the two of you have known each other for awhile, so I suppose I just need to know what the hell the problem is.”
“The problem is that I see too much of a clear vision of my future with Everett. We’d get married stay in the same place have kids and eventually end up hating each other. I have bigger plans for the both of us.”
“Oh yeah, what are they?”
“To be determined at a later date.” She turned her head towards Everett and Joel walking over with the last round of the night. We couldn’t find Amanda, Ronna seceding and taking the last shot in her honor. All of us were having problems walking as the night air felt like it was puncturing our arteries. She turned up behind the bar, kissing the mystery man with the passion of a thousand kicked kegs. Amanda said his name was Keith and that they had had a history class way back when, before life had caught up. Part of her seemed like she knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and that made it all so much easier.
The casual escapism associated with any quick make-out session in the back alley behind Stanley’s Bar and Grill would remind anyone what it was like to be young once. Although, none of us were quite like our parents yet, or even like Gail and Brian despite their fruitful giddiness. It was just that every aspect of our intricate selves seemed to be slowly falling apart, or well on the way to floating off in the next big gust of wind.
I was fearful of settling. Everett was waiting for something more worthwhile than a one-night stand. Amanda was in the process of finding the exact opposite, while Tracy searched for some vague sense of independence. Ronna and Joel were attempting to avoid self-destruction, and then there was Alanna. I could fall in love with everything she said, and yet still have no idea how she viewed the world. I didn’t know if it was all somehow strangely beautiful or a mess of one-way streets and dirty sidewalks. She would never have an obvious tell like the rest of us.
We followed Ronna and Tracy down the street, promises of their apartment and illegal drugs a few blocks away. Everett remained passively at Alanna’s side, not saying much of anything, while Joel and I rounded out the back, Amanda a few paces in front of us. It was almost one, the wear and tear of the day having a supreme effect on my liveliness. I was ready to regretfully decline all invitations including those from Alanna. I couldn’t have handled sex or even the sweetness of simply messing around. My hands were unresponsive to the majority of my brain waves. I simply wanted the night to end, and to start fresh the next morning, all of us having headaches as casual reminders of what wasn’t said.
Amanda stopped to fix her heel for what must have been the twelfth time that night. Joel and I waited, while the others pushed on, walking more upright as police cars passed in slow motion. Their eyes were fixed on all suspicious activity, and yet we were all just looking for a place to settle.
“So why didn’t what’s his name come with us Amanda?” Joel was putting in his two sense, which would have seemed unnecessary if I hadn’t been seeing double since the second shot.
“He was there with his girlfriend.”
“Are you serious?” I was in a strange drunken awe.
“Yeah, she was talking to her friends or something. I doubt she even noticed.”
“How could she not notice?”
“Because things like that happen all the time. I mean, cheating isn’t really that difficult. Most of the time it’s right in front of their eyes.”
“She’s right.” Joel sighed as if he was thinking about some grandiose mistake or random thought on something he hadn’t noticed before. I would never know the difference.
“Yeah, I guess.” I started to watch each individual step I took. I could feel myself slightly faltering, my balance having passed with all other forms of clarity sometime earlier. I could vaguely see Everett grab her hand as the two of them rounded the corner. She seemed a bit restless over the whole thing, as if it wasn’t necessarily anything huge, but rather yet another half-hearted attempt at allowing for things to sink in. He knew that she knew everything, and yet with each rational thought that passed through Everett’s head, I could tell there was still a dead sense of hope lightly breathing inside of him. I didn’t know which was worse, pretending like it didn’t matter or allowing myself the time to think of ways to steal her away. I was new to the series, all the reoccurring characters taking the time to warm up to my particular brand of flattery. They would never completely understand.