Chapter 1: Headphones On
I was zoning out with waves of clarity. All of the drugs I hid from my parents at the rest stop were slowly dwindling. I hadn’t saved up or rationed in any sense of the word. I couldn’t bring myself to maintain any kind of clear concise thought on the ride there. It would have just torn me apart inside. Violet saw me smoke the joint from a distance. I was sitting on the splintered red picnic table farthest away from everything watching the horizon like hawk. We were still so far away from everything. It felt good, reassuring even.
Her vision was bad, and her memory of whether or not I was her grandson would fade in and out. Violet’s glasses were always smudged. I think she enjoyed the idea of blurred tunnel vision. It helped her to settle more on the things she knew she was forgetting.
I listened to the mix she made me. Muriel and her bullshit mixes. None of them truly captured moments; just disillusioned shades of what could have been something bigger than the both of us. Instead it quickly dwindled like all the fade outs of my life, and faster than I expected. I figured after nearly a year of bullshit something would have stuck. First there was the summer, the waiting, her falling for Tim before me, and then slowly realizing how much of a shit he was, followed by the inevitable start of my final year of college.
I had breeze classes, starting late in the day, which offered the perfect opportunity to stay up late, getting drunk and inevitably falling for all the wrong counterparts. Bars were full of them, and I could see myself finally taking advantage of the high-heeled bleached-blonde spectacles who fashioned themselves off of pictures from cloned Hollywood science experiments. Girls had all the wrong role models. Never writers, musicians, or artists, but rather simply big tits, and cute asses. That’s what they enjoyed. The ability to make the comparison helped all of them get through their bored lives consisting of fucking and sucking.
I met one in my Psych class. She was beautiful like all the ones in high school were. I thought of the guy exactly like me, hiding behind bigger passer-bys in the hall, to avoid looking. The stare would always burn. Attractive women turned men like myself into stone. We couldn’t handle the later thoughts and tendencies towards masturbation that would inevitably occur following a look. We started vague conversations, and I would listen to her ramble about weekends filled with meaningless substance abuse on her cellphone, when my headphones were broke. It made me hate college more than I could ever imagine. I didn’t want to change, succumb or pretend like I cared about all their stupid bullshit. I was too much of a standard-setter.
I was growing out of Muriel at the beginning of it. It’s just that she was so good at clouding things. The second I stopped thinking about her, there would be something subtle. Gestures, phone calls, bullshit messages, comments, everything that made the highly gullible me think twice. It’s like she majored in it or something. I was hooked in again and again, on the same damn fishing line.
Winter meant she hated being alone. Events started to come fewer and farther between. She must have been really bored. We were so bad for each other. I hated the decline of my former self. I had friends at a point, reliable escapes, and occasional reflections on weekends that meant something. It was most likely a result of the drugs, though. Her and I fell for feelings of blurred vision, not each other. Muriel was far too beautiful to be creative, and I hated the fact that I would use her for inspiration. It wasn’t a fare trade-off. She hated me for it, in fact. She would browse through pages and always talk about how bad I made her sound. I couldn’t help it, though. That’s fiction sometimes.
I didn’t see it coming. I wished I could just simply forget about it like Violet. I’m sure she barely remembered what marriage was like. My grandmother seemed content to listen to long-winded jazz recordings on the MP3 player my father programmed for her. It didn’t really bring her back to a place, but rather just let a new distorted version of Violet wander around in false memories, large ballroom settings, and tall buildings that were lined with walls of fresh wet paint. She could scribble her name in cement, and it would mean more than it ever could. My grandmother was free in her aged absentmindedness and I was beyond envious of her.
I developed all the wrong memories with Muriel. She would take billions of pictures, all never capturing the true essence of us. We were something special in my mind. It wasn’t just snapshots. I would watch movies I brought over, while she perused through homework for liberal study electives. None of it mattered, though. She still had time to be reckless, to figure her life out in all the wrong ways. She always saw me as some kind of mistake, something that she was inevitably giving into.
I knew immediately after her to never let them know. In fact, letting them know is the worse thing possible. It just leaves them the opportunity to take full advantage. Rides to see people you hate, dinners bought with the moths flying out of the bottom of you wallet, she had me shaped like putty. My statuesque presence around Muriel still wasn’t enough to garner any kind of worth. Her sculptures of me would be placed in the storage room next to the Ark of the Covenant, both of us burning our own unique holes through boxes marked fragile.
Maybe the museum would decide to look at them later, if our entire generation happened to die off from some strange Clear Pepsi or New Coke virus, that none of us expected at an early age, simply being told that trying new things was good. The whole problem with that statement was that Muriel wasn’t exactly a new thing. I would continually find myself falling for the same disheveled brand of women. They were the pseudo-hipster suburban types. Girls that changed with college and breasts. They hated high school because guys found it hard to do anything but stare at all the others. The ones with full liquor cabinets and parents out on illustrious ski weekends. These girls knew how to do it all better. They were the ones that got fucked. Falling in love was a distant lucrative concept for everyone at sixteen.
Once they arrived in the lush freedom of small yet spacious college campuses stationed miles enough away from their parents’ houses, they began to explore notions. Punk rocks guys with piercings their mothers hated. The intellectual types. They were always reading, expanding their minds and pretending as if they cared about world issues. The truth was that none of us did. We were all falling apart internally. The world was just an offshoot of that. Eventually they met people like me. The Noah Marcus type. I can’t understand why I was never a hot commodity. Creative, reasonably attractive in a “fuck everything” sort of way, and lacking any substantial direction. College was a lap dance for me, I way to look but not touch.
Needless to say, I had some growing to do. Girls like Muriel weren’t my type. I just thought they were, like we were somehow meant for a dilapidated version of the American dream. A house full of kids we hated, a mortgage, and two jobs that we would quickly leave if we had the option to. Maybe she saw it all coming. I know we wouldn’t see her family as much if it had worked out. I would have made it a point to lie on the couch; faking headaches like my father did with my mother. He was light-years ahead of his time, a true genius of suburban sprawl.
I was left full of indecision after Muriel’s Memorial Day party the previous week. I knew something was up the second I got out of my car. She seemed distant. Her younger siblings all gave me the sympathy look before I even perused the covered dishes. It wasn’t just them, though. Her mother’s eyes pierced me. They spoke gently; whispering into my ear the fact that both of us knew this was the end. Conversation with her father was different that day. Instead of asking me what I was going to inevitably do now that I had earned a degree in phrasing, he instead just talked about the beer. Mr. Cavallo was an aficionado of making me feel like a complete loser, and yet that day was the best one with him. He didn’t say much of anything. I started to feel as if I had entered The Twilight Zone, waiting for a stern voice-over and some kind of answer. It came faster than expected.
We walked into her bedroom. It had gotten colder out. She needed a sweatshirt. It was the one from the Sonic Youth show. I had driven her and her obnoxious friends through the blizzard only to conveniently miss “Dirty Boots” and be left with nothing but a mindful of distortion as they made it to the front. Kim looked at me from the stage during “Creme Brulee” like she understood. I should have seen it as a sign. I could have called it divine intervention later, all the elements of every occasion with Muriel adding up to that very moment in her bedroom, the walls covered with posters of bands she had only heard of.
“This isn’t working out,” she said softly, as if my entire life was on the slow descent towards nothingness. My only direction at that point was to maintain some sort of connection with Muriel. She was inspiration above all else, and despite our lack of substantial feelings, it felt better to at least have something going for me. Waking up with no direction is one thing. Waking up single with no direction is an entirely different concept all together. I was shattered as she sipped on her yellow wine cooler. I was also far too drunk to drive home.
I found a small portion of the woods to hide and smoke a joint alone. I felt like a complete loser, reflecting on all the bad memories with diminishing detail. I would miss them, as they were all brilliant at their fickleness. I drank more; the underlying concept of getting my money’s worth having filtered into my head. I was too good at being a Jew, and yet there wasn’t a trace of it in my blood. The foldout in the living room offered some vague solace. I heard the voices pass, and briefly opened my eyes to see them rushing through, full of energy and brash concepts of youth encircling all of us. I called it the opposite of blinking. I would briefly glance at those who were desperately inpatient when no one was noticing their boisterousness, and then let my eyes shut while trying to imagine how perfect things could have been. Muriel started out with potential and ended in an explosion of luscious vanity. She was the biggest of mistakes. I should have gone for the blondes.
I woke up early; the room still passionately spinning around the both of us. Her cousin Hanna and Cameron had stolen her bed for a night filled with stainful discourse. Muriel was curled up in a ball on the floor, a homemade afghan covering the majority of her body. She looked content. None of it mattered to her. Everything was a temporary vice, a lapse in judgement, a drunken escapade to the far reaches of pure one-dimensional bliss. I was quiet as I searched for my shoes and walked out the front door. I remember starring at all the intricate pieces that had fallen apart around me. There were crushed beer cans blowing in the wind, making the faintest of whistling sounds. She was officially no longer a part of my life, and I didn’t realize how much it stung until I packed my bag for the longest of weekends.
My sister Gail was getting married to her ritzy young executive boss name Brian Brinker. None of us knew him, and yet the majority of the car could feel our eyes instantly rolling to the back of our heads. Gail was no longer one of us. She hadn’t been for some time. While Fred, Joy and I had become numb to one another, all stationing ourselves in different rooms in front of flashing television sets, flipping for answers that we knew we could never completely find, Gail was off falling in love, or at least what some could consider a dilapidated version of what love was.
He was young, rich, full of life, and probably the essence of douchebag. We had only seen pictures, before the inevitable phone call. Joy said she sounded happy, like everything was going to work out. I loathed my sister for being the person who always had the answer. She was the girl who constantly raised her hand in every class, who enjoyed the comfort and underlying satisfaction of being a kiss-ass, and now she was going to be the wife that worked in the same office, the two of them eventually letting their temptation take them over. The thought of it was nauseating, and I couldn’t necessarily blame it on carsickness.
Fred was driving fast, making Joy nervous. She should have sat in the back with Violet. Unfortunately my grandmother never forgot about my mother. They had the dreaded mother-in-law relationship that she would never completely live down. It was an uncomfortable car from the second we left Pittsburgh. I had been through the majority of Muriel’s mixes on the cold ride to Chicago. It started raining in Ohio, as I watched the drops descend with grace. I thought about how easy it would be to just turn into some other kind of matter. I could follow orders like raindrops, and live out my purpose without nearly as many regrets. She was still getting to me, even though I was getting away.
It was a Thursday, the weekend offering with some minor escapes. I could avoid questions of what the hell was I going to do with my life, from my parents. They would be too busy with the schmoozing. The doctor and the trophy. Those were the Brinkers we would meet. I wouldn’t have to see any of the faces I had learned to conveniently hide from, those in the bars and the others that would still stop by on occasion to remind me that there was no means to escape. I would be back and with no good stories to tell, and a disposition that would most likely be my own personal means to an end.
Fred had pulled some strings in the office. I would be working side-by-side with my father on Monday morning. It would last an eternity, I was sure. There would be no new women to meet, no new college friends, and simply those who stuck around. I would eventually earn the respect of living alone, and then after a few inevitable suicide attempts, find the perfect woman on a hill at the peak of fall, leaves on the decline from the treetops. She would be beautiful and hate all the same things. We would have bastard children and not answer the phone when Joy called. The two of them wouldn’t get along.
Lyrics became floating anomalies as I tried to think about topics that had no bearing on my life. I put my head against the window and drifted off without much pause. The ride was difficult in many aspects of the word. My parents would end up fighting with one another about speeds and ways to act, their shouts filtering in past the headphones. Violet remained quiet. She pretended like her hearing was worse that it actually was. I couldn’t get over how much easier it would be if people just forgot about the concept of me existing. I didn’t want to think about me, but rather just leave me in some home to slowly deteriorate before somebody occupied my room with less of a vision.
They would let sparks fly back towards me occasionally. I hated when they got together and decided that I was the one with zero direction. It hurt to have to fend both parents off, as they seemed to like the process of turning me into a simple statement of diminishing dignity.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with the rest of my life.” It would occasionally repeat itself, sometimes dissonant, but always easily understood. They didn’t care about the break-up. They hadn’t even met Muriel, a fact to which I was beyond proud of. I would have eloped with her if she were the type of person. Unfortunately we were on different wavelength for the majority of our jail sentence. I hated my thought, as they never became anything other than just that.
Joy whined about having to piss for a solid half an hour before Fred pulled over to the Quick and Go. He needed gas. The tank was running low. Violet didn’t stir, even when the car stopped. She could fall in and out of consciousness like it was some sort of magic trick. Her life was the opposite of blinking. I bought a Coca-Cola with my own money and tried not to stare at the abundant cleavage from the clerk. She was in her late twenties, but looked like she was desperately trying to appear fifteen. It was sad, and yet I could tell my father wouldn’t look away. He lived for minor junctions in sin. The late night movie on the pay channels, or the double clicking the pop up at work. I was on the verge of getting far too used to my father at that point. Once we returned I could see myself becoming just like all the others. I was a sad comic display of what was going to happen after college graduation. There was no upward mobility, just a settling of dust around my slouching body.
The flies gathered as I picked out another CD. Violet glanced over at me, taking her large black headphones off.
“This is some shit, huh?”
“You should’ve stayed home. We both should have.”
“Nothing’s happening at home grandma.”
“We’re gonna miss Wheel of Fortune.”
“Fred Tivo’s it for you, remember?”
“No. What’s Tivo?”
“Nevermind. We’re almost there, I think.”
“Oh. Okay.” She turned back to the window as my father let out a sigh, sitting back down in the car. I wasn’t fast enough. I hadn’t covered my ears, hit play, let myself zone out. He saw an open window. A place for inevitable male bonding. I thought about faking like I had to piss, running for the comfort of a shit-stained convenient store bathroom stall, cocksucker and cum dumpster scribbled on the walls. It was too late, though. His eyes met mine in the rearview. I was a goner.
“Fucking gas is so goddamn expensive.”
“Yeah, I know dad.”
“What’s taking your mother so fucking long?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re almost there. She could’ve held it.”
“She would have probably felt weird instantly pissing the second we got there.”
“Well she’s gonna have to get used to it. We’re pissing there all weekend.”
“I know dad.”
“So are you as thrilled about all of this, as I am?”
“No, actually I think this blows. Of course, it’s not like I’m missing anything back home.”
“You’re not gonna start bitching about Muriel again, are you? I mean, it’s getting pretty old, and while your mother’s overly sympathetic to your situation, I think you need to stop being such a little pussy.”
“I’m fine dad. I’ve been moderately depressed my entire life, why would the fact that Muriel broke up with me, change anything?”
“I guess you’re right.” Joy walked back towards the car, silencing both of us. It was the verge of night, all of us longing for our own private rooms, walls offering better exploits for conversation. It wouldn’t start or end that easy, though. I had far too much ahead of me. I wouldn’t be ready for the way things would inevitably turn out. The passing of objects on the highway would become familiar discourse. I would settle new land and bask in the glories of fallen establishments, but first we all had to meet Brian’s parents.