I was fucked up, trying to remember a time when it all felt normal, when all the people I was regularly surrounded by actually meant something to me, but it had all changed, and I suppose faster than I expected. Six months away from it all, stranded in hotel rooms, frequenting bars with neon lights, fingering the trashy blondes in the taxicabs before eventually ending up back in the room. I was getting good at swiping the cards to unlock the door. It was one quick motion, something I’m sure got them off before I even started to do it myself.
They wouldn’t talk much and luckily our barroom conversations were always abruptly cut short by text messages they would receive or the blaring speaker system. I remember a time where I used to care to listen. I would ask her about her day, what had happened, all the minor incidents snowballing to an eventual place of pure bliss. I enjoyed her bullshit, which seemed strange even for me. It was different now, though. It was a whole new world. It’s like how they say you can’t go back.
I mean, once you’re out and away from it all, stories build around the others without you. It’s kind of like a soap opera, but with less of a moral code, and who’s the star? Who manages to take all the attention away from the other low-budget spectacles? Who’s the person the housewives like to watch and later fantasize about while reading their cheap dime novelty fiction in the comfort of their draped bedrooms?
I guess it would have to be Dennis. The big deal from my lifeless hometown, a former friend later followed by a drifting acquaintance and then finally the bane of my existence, the person I wanted to shoot in the head every time he came around. I never really thought I was prone to violence, though. I mean, I consider myself somewhat of an artist, a craftsman of the written word. In short, a pretty big pussy up to a point, but none the less, someone with some kind of spark, ya know? And oh what a spark it once was. I could compare it to the candles in the window on the night of the ride of Paul Revere. Faint and yet all so important.
She never saw me that way, though. No, it wasn’t her cup of tea to look for those who managed to be somewhat real, for those who had a better sense of self, those that knew where it was all going. Maria instead enjoyed being oblivious, wallowing in her bedroom, stoned, wondering why somebody like Dennis claimed to love her over the phone or possibly in messages sent on the Internet. But then when we were all being social, shooting the shit, wondering where our lives were inevitably going, why somebody like Dennis, who was so sweet and funny, cool and dangerous, recklessly falling apart, tearing away at the seams like fireworks going off on the fourth of July… Why somebody like him would simply ignore how he supposedly really felt, why he would only claim that he was leaving Gale on the first of the month, once the paycheck came in, and instead just be the perfect example of a social boyfriend, playfully embarrassing and far too drunk to comprehend or fully grasp all the hearts he was breaking in the room.
In short, Maria simply didn’t understand the person that he was. Dennis needed to be promiscuous, to plant seeds, and sure, say the right things from time to time, fake like he was opening his chest up, laying his heart on the table, promising a perfect life away from it all. Taking pictures of dry faces in New York, or possibly getting the advance to go to Europe. It would be a chance to fall in love all over again. They would go gallivanting around the historical sidewalks, drunk on cheap wine, wishing they remembered the last time they looked up at the sky and realized how beautiful it all was.
Of course, the reality of Dennis’ hushed promises and whispers behind bedroom doors was the fact that after the drunkenness, and the moonlight came the inevitable puking in the gutter, and just as he looked up, wiping his mouth, regaining his dilapidated sense of self, another skirt would walk by. She would pretend like she didn’t understand English, that his stories were charming and his small-town accent and sensibilities were undeniably sexy. Dennis would magnetically stick to this bleached blonde heroine. He would make up an excuse and never meet Maria back at the hotel room, because it just felt like an extremely strenuous task to be so settled and numb, in Paris of all places.
Nothing was like that, though. In fact, as I looked around at the people I still knew all too well, despite the fact that I had missed about a full season of dramatic episodes, I realized that nothing had really changed. I was a different person, though, no longer the fully fleshed example of sympathy. They didn’t feel bad for me anymore. No instead, they all just felt bad for themselves. They hadn’t seen anything new, and each night after starring at a similar cracked ceiling all of them quietly wondered to themselves where I was, what I was doing, who I was with, and why they had dumped on me for so fucking long, they would realize that it was going to be harder to sleep alone tonight or any other night. In fact, it was going to be a pure adrenaline rush of familiarity to sleep at all once they figured all that out.
Friends got invited places. Friends would keep in touch. Friends wouldn’t just poke their heads out of the sand every six months or so when they have to return home for their cousin Brian’s wedding. I was sort of looking forward to the next day’s events. The ceremony would be a bore, but I could pick out the ones who looked like they were worth fucking. Bridesmaids would swoon over my drunken tuxedoed self, and I had stories to tell them this time. Illustrious tales of big city living, jumping around from couch to airplane. I fucked a cocktail waitress on the men’s restroom floor one night in Austin only to later find out that she was married with kids. I considered writing a short story about her sad life, our passion-filled tiled escape being the backdrop for it, but I figured that it wouldn’t really appeal to any kind of a mass audience. They didn’t like to hear about how sad it all really was.
No, instead they liked to see profound life change, or possibly view the world from a different angle. Cocktail waitresses got fucked, though. That was their thing. It was like a part of their lives, a part of the job. In any case, I tipped big after my last drink before taking the cab back to the five-star hotel and ordering room service as I smoked a joint alone. I remember she gave me a cute smirk before walking off to the back of the restaurant. It reminded me of Maria’s, but was a little more full of life. The waitress knew what she had to go home to, she had accepted it, and yet as I starred across the familiar apartment and noticed Maria’s eye fixated in Dennis’ general direction, Gale and himself still pretending like they were the happy newlyweds who hadn’t gotten married yet, I realized that she would never completely understand how much of a lost cause it all was.
Me, on the other hand, I would’ve been worth it then. Not now, though. No, now I’m just sort of oblivious to girls like Maria. Girls that pretend like they’re artists. Girls that make believe like it’s all normal. The pain and anguish is a part of them, and as they stare up at the faces they don’t really know all that well, huffing and puffing over them, buying them flowers and puppy dogs, they still don’t quite buy into the idea that maybe it’s not going to work out with the star.
The writers know, though. We kind of take it all in. A picture’s bullshit. It doesn’t say anything. It’s just kind of there to look at, turning your head slightly to side and saying, “Wow, that must have been a really beautiful moment,” but it doesn’t say it like this. I could have taken a thousand pictures of Maria’s face that night, and a thousand more at all the parties and incidents before my own self exile, and none of it could have explained it nearly as well as I’m trying to explain it right now at this very moment. It was justifiably perfect. Somber and melancholy, the hurt stretching past any normal confines of everyday life. It was a whimsical reiteration that there is such a thing as being too naïve.
It was why I decided to call Henry that night. I knew they all wouldn’t be doing much of anything, getting drunk in the same small space, talking about their days and weeks like they were playing cards held on their drunken foreheads. Dennis’ three queens used to always beat my two pair before that night. Before that night I was the one walking out with a losing hand, with the emptied pockets and the coat ripped from my back, and yet the less than familiar feeling of complete victory swept over me like a dust storm. I could barely see or comprehend any of it, but it was all still there, still making it hard to breathe, still making some of us put our hands to our mouths to cough up memories of our former selves. It reminded me that there was such a thing as justice. Some call it karma; others just drown out whatever it is they’re thinking about calling it, choosing to simply ignore the graceful descent of life sometimes.
I used to be one of those people. I was happy to be in love with Maria once, to let it fade like all our temporary achievements. Her looks from across the room, the things we didn’t say to each other, and all of the bullshit we allowed to consume us. I was a firm supporter of it. The guy that just wanted her to be happy. Of course, even now as I think about that night, I can’t really imagine her being the least bit content as one of the many mistresses. I could run my fingers through the pages of our town’s phonebook, randomly stopping on last names, the majority of which having some sort of connection to one of them.
There was Joyce. A friend from high school still dating bald scapegoats and occasionally getting just the right amount of drunken attention from Dennis to maintain that warm fuzzy feeling of self-loathing. He would tell me about how wet she would get when he moved his tongue in a counter-clockwise movement, on our drives home from weekends spent tying up loose ends. He fucked Joyce’s sophomore-year roommate, Andrea, after the band played a show on campus, although I don’t really recall any of the oral details at this very moment.
Lisa hadn’t gone there in awhile, but still sort of wanted to, I think. It was like revenge for her or something. Fucking Dennis got her off in ways that couldn’t necessarily be explained in modern scientific terms. She wanted to live life like a bad actress before eventually settling with Peter. They were engaged, the wedding in the fall, and yet even if I were in the kind of position to have an address to mail an invitation, I don’t see myself going. It would just be too much like all the other nights. I mean, it’s different with family. There’s that underlying concept that you’re being forced to get drunk and make a fool out of yourself.
With friends it should be different, ya know? It shouldn’t be a barrage of looks circling around the church, wondering if anyone’s going to object to such a union. That’s why Dennis hadn’t popped the question to Gale yet. He knew he would have to invite all the other women he was fucking on the side, and in which case it would prove rather complicated to continue to do so once the kids started popping out. All of them would slowly start to wonder why they had so many aunts that weren’t related to them, and furthermore barely any uncles.
I remember George mentioned another one while we were smoking on the roof. She was some girl he met when he was sixteen at band camp or something. All of a sudden she was back in town, and Dennis needed more excuses, more busy work to lie about. It was really pathetic the more and more I thought about it. I mean, there really is no point in forming relationships and furthermore having more than one. It’s different for me being on the road. The blondes in bars like to hear stories about my life as a literary mistake. They like to be dazzled, to pretend like they’ve read something I’ve written before, and all for the sake of making the one-night-stand that much more magical. They can tell their friends about it the next day at work, but eventually it’ll just be common practice to not give a shit about what they’re saying.
We all don’t care, ya know? She could be fucking Justin Timberlake or something and it wouldn’t make any kind of a difference. Drunk one-night-stand fucking is like paying to play pool at a bar when you have a table all to yourself at home. It’s sort of strange, but everybody does it from time to time, and even if the person you’re fucking is sort of a big deal, it doesn’t change the fact that it went nowhere after that.
See that’s why it was weird with that waitress, though. I didn’t really want her to hold me in such high esteem. Our dirty little secret was probably one of many, and I didn’t really understand it. It was personal with her, ya know? Kind of like Lisa and the revenge thing, but also kind of different. It meant something to be that reckless and still on the clock. She set out to get away almost, but instead it didn’t happen. We didn’t even go back to the hotel. She wiped the dirt off of her black dress, as she stood up, relieved and strangely satisfied. I threw the rubber in the metal garbage can and we unlocked the door. Nobody was waiting to use the facility, and yet there were people waiting for her to get home, to hear about how her day was. I couldn’t stop thinking about it in the cab. It was odd for people to be that way, ya know?
Anyway, I don’t know why Maria didn’t listen to me. As I looked at her face past all the polished bodies, that was all I could think about. I tried to tell her so many times that it wasn’t going to work out, and yet I suppose I never really fully came out and said it. I would try to be subtle. I couldn’t just hold the page in front of her face and say “read this.” Our relationship didn’t work like that.
Fuck, it’s so weird that I just called it a relationship, but I mean, calling it a friendship would make me have to completely redefine that word, and I’m not one to do that. Words have their definitions for a reason. She said, “just friends” like it’s an okay thing, like it’s something we can both live with, ya know? Yet it’s not like she can fucking live with Dennis’ fragmented definition of “just fuck buddies” or “just part-time lovers,” “just supposedly intellectual and creative equals.” Instead, she should really see it for how it is. “Just another girl he talks to and occasionally fools around with.”
I wasn’t the one to tell her, though, at least not outright. Even after six beers, several bowl hits and a few quick lines in the green and white tiled bathroom, I still didn’t really feel like I had any say in what she was doing with her life, or really, when push comes to shove, not doing in her life. She wasn’t really venturing out and away from the common infatuation, but rather sort of waiting for somebody else to fall in love with her.
I guess she was still sort of working the Chad card, and rather elegantly I must admit. Her flirting almost seemed sincere. Her envious laughter echoed in the filled room, and yet despite how fucked up I and everybody else was, we all kind of knew that anything Chad said wasn’t really going to be funny.
I talked to some random acquaintances for awhile, filling them in on what it’s all like, how it’s different. I pretended like I missed occasions like that one, that it was all sort of scattered and dull, that every town was kind of the same, kind of like ours. None of it was true, though. I guess I didn’t really have the heart to tell them what they needed to hear. That’s the weird thing about it, though. My heart had to be broken first before I could tell Maria, and by that time it was just like pretending to drown in the deep end, for attention or maybe a false sense of accomplishment when you realize that you’re somebody worth saving. I had to do it for me, not her. I had to let her know that everything could have been different. Everything could have been about us.
I pissed for what seemed like an hour before saying a few shallow good-byes, reiterating that I was catching a plane that Sunday after the wedding hangover wore off. They waved like it wasn’t the last time we would see each other. They had some sense that I would be back, for a funeral or maybe around Christmas time to share similar feelings of distaste with them and my parents. I closed the door behind me, magically keeping my balance as I headed for the stairs. I heard it open again, in quick succession, and yet didn’t allow myself the comfort of turning around and looking like an old bad habit.
“You didn’t even say hi tonight,” she said standing in the doorway like we were past due for a heart-to-heart. I started walking down the stairs reminding myself that it was kind of hard to have any kind of soul-bearing conversation when you’ve already sold it for an unfamiliar bed to sleep in every night, and an equally unrecognizable body lying next to you. The hangover, on the other hand, it was like my favorite movie. I couldn’t just flip past it. I had to see some part of it before venturing off to another channel.
“It was good to see you tonight Maria. I almost forgot how similar we used to be.” I took the two flights down to the sidewalk, unlocked my car and started driving without thinking much about how everything was kind of spinning. I knew where all the cops would be stationed, where all the kids would get caught and where she would sleep that night. Passed out on the red sectional, wondering where her life was going. I remember how quickly I was back home, sleeping in my old bedroom, once again pretending like it was all a matter of a personal opinion, personal choice, personal whatever. I couldn’t be anything but a special guest star now, and one that chose to remain unaccredited. I couldn’t stand for people to see me as a regular there anymore. The show had already jumped the shark.