I took myself to the outdoor shopping center when the urges got really bad. The unwelcoming way they made you slide your car into a spot was just the beginning. Women wearing pastel polo shirts handed out samplers that scorched my heart. Men with ex-military tattoos stopped at kiosks to touch such meaningless things. Children with sneakers that cost as much as my monthly student loan payment passed an eye over me making sure I wasn’t somebody that mattered to the world.
There was a woman’s clothing store I would march around, hoping somebody might take me for attractive, might mistake me for a boyfriend that they could turn.
Sometimes I bought a pair of fake leather pants just to have a conversation with whichever girl they had swiping their keycard into the register. I’d get another one with a different girl upon returning the pants. My occupation and relationship status changed if I felt like justifying the purchase/return of the pants. Some days I was a photographer, some days I was shopping for my girlfriend’s birthday, other days I was nothing at all.
If I moved slowly enough through the promenade I could pass a few hours. If I got hungry there was a Mexican place that always seemed to forget about me and my diet coke. For most people on the patio the melted ice was an affront to them by their waiter. For me, it was cause for silent prayer.
At the gym, the place where I spent the most time outside of my studio apartment, there were machines I used to tire myself into a kind of submission. The walls were lined with mirrors that you could monitor your form. I tried not to look too much. If I did look, I’d focus on whatever body part I was working, avoiding the psychic fate that waited for me if I stared at myself too long. Other people noticed me. I cut the sleeves off my t-shirts because my biceps had gotten bigger. I was building myself up, as they say. I bought supplements from a department store and didn’t bother reading the ingredients, just popped however many pills the label prescribed. I knew the habit was probably connected, but these pills worked or didn’t, silently.
One night when I was still active I rolled my car in an irrigation ditch and woke with worms in my pockets. My wallet was void of cash or cards or identification. The arresting officer called me lucky, called it a reckoning. He couldn’t tell if I was bleeding or muddy or both. Those worms, though.They’re still with me. They enter my brain whenever I lift those weights over my head.
In the kitchen, it almost killed me to look at the void on the counter. Pacing the linoleum tiles on the phone I’d try remembering the order of the bottles I’d kept. Bitters stained the area like a warning sign: you could be bloodied again. The phone calls were a necessity, a luxury. I had a friend who was television famous. We were in same predicament, only he’d reaped the benefits early. Fame bored him tremendously, so he was happy to talk through an urge with me. When I asked him if he ever felt pressured to party out where he was shooting his television show, he said, “Only when I forget that I could lose a lot of money.” He was a better talker than he was a listener.
The loneliness of the room flooded back to me after these calls. There were other calls I could make, local ones, but none of them seemed as exotic as talking to someone who killed zombies on television for a living.
Here, the corner stores sold past midnight. In the rooms, they tell you to get new hobbies. I tried watching more television to tranquilize myself. On television, actor’s pint glasses are actually filled with beer. A prop guy filled my friend’s pint glass with food-colored club soda. His reckoning was this: one day he woke up with a kid on the way.
There are always so many hours to go until the morning.
She left her adjustments at lunch to visit the student. It was familiar: stepping from one world of process and appeal into another. On the highway, she’d receive a text message regarding her timing. When parked on his side street she sent a single word back. Her husband had separated himself from her temporarily, took the guest bedroom. At night, even with the door closed, his headphones troubled to contain his desires. Yet, he was still kind in the way of bill payments, recycling schedules, and auto maintenance.
The student was unkind to her in all the ways she desired him to be. Before their first meeting they exchanged a list: spit, slap, choke, bite, break. There were phrases he wanted repeated. Month ago, she’d been instructed to stop knocking. Now, she noticed the curtain pulled, slightly. His order of conduct was comforting—knowing he’d tend to her needs in time. The music he penetrated the room with regulated his rhythm. His directions during were cadenced, even if sometimes they needed to be negotiated.
Wet and worn after, she’d leave hair-tied and hungry, and secure the nearest drive-thru. Only then, staring at the menu, did the world look directionless again.
What Are We Again
Will had pierced one of his ears with an ice cube and a safety pin. “I found the bloody towel balled up in the trash can before dinner,” his mom told mine. And he could keep it as long as he kept up with his bible study, she said.
I hadn’t seen Will in a year. Our moms had let us talk on the phone a couple times over the school year, until dad found out about the long distance.
On the way to West Virginia, my mom had started crying. When she made the right exit, near Wheeling, she started laughing. I asked if she was okay.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just got a little overwhelmed.”
The day before this, she had shipped my little brother to a soccer camp in another family’s mini-van.
It was my dad’s fault. That Christmas, he’d taken our presents hostage after a night of drinking, and barricaded himself in his office, while negotiating their release with my mom over the phone. Things didn’t get better after that.
I was the kind of kid who misbehaved in small but calculated ways that never made it back to my parents: petty theft of a bikini girl air freshener from the Speedway and a little dissension throughout the school day.
“Got a 64 for Christmas,” Will said, in the way of a greeting. “We gotta play Earthworm.”
At dinner, we prayed. On the way up, Mom had instructed me to be respectful and follow along even if I didn’t understand what we were doing.
“Are they Christian?” I asked.
“They’re Jesuits,” Mom said. “So it’s a little different. They’re big on helping people.”
“What are we again?”
I closed my eyes while Will’s mom thanked God for my safety and arrival in their home. “Amen,” they said and I said it with them.
In the basement, Will and I lay side by side in sleeping bags. We watched a VHS about a group of pirates trying to decide between right and wrong. Will’s mom and dad came down to tuck us in and say goodnight. Will’s mom kissed my cheek, said, “Let me know if you need anything at all.”
When she left, Will said, “I never knew your parents got into fights.”
“They don’t,” I said.
“Okay,” Will said.
The stud in his ear glimmered in the glow of the television. I couldn’t concentrate on the movie. Back home, at night, I pressed my ear against the air conditioning vent and listened to my parent’s voices rising. But here, it seemed like adults didn’t speak after dark. This quiet was as disturbing as noise.
Later, a tapping sounded on the basement window. Will paused the VHS tape. Onscreen, a drunken pirate, frozen mid-fall upon a flight of stairs. Will opened the window. A girl lowered herself inside. She brushed dirt off her baggy t-shirt, then introduced herself.
Molly was taller than both of us and skinny and wore her hair short like mine. She plopped down on the couch, like appearing in the middle of the night was a regular thing.
“We should take him to The Wall,” Molly said.
They pushed me out of the window first. I rested my body against the cool vinyl siding. The tick of the air conditioner unit signaled something wrong. I was sure of it.
The Wall wasn’t far, they assured me. We took alleys just to be safe.
“What are you afraid of?” Molly asked me.
“Heights,” I said. My real answer was that one morning I’d wake up and Mom would be gone.
Behind a church, we followed a path cut through woods. The sound of water rushed toward us: a creek. We balanced on rocks. The headlights of passing cars passed one by one high above us on the wall.
Molly and Will took off their shirts. Will seemed so much older than me then. Like in the last year he’d figured out things about the world that I was still waiting to understand.
“It’s not cold at all,” Will said, his body disappearing into the water.
Molly took hold of my t-shirt and pulled it over my head the way I’ve dreamed about women doing it since. We waded in the shallow, my feet touching the floor of the creek over and over again, making sure with each step that it wasn’t getting deeper. I looked over at Will, jealous, as he wrapped his arms around Molly, dunking her under the water. My mother was back home by now, and I longed for her.
Will climbed an embankment up to the concrete wall overlooking the creek. His body was a silhouette above us.
“Jump!” Molly yelled. She grabbed my hand.
Will made the sign of the cross. Traffic passed behind him. I still remember the way he shook his arms out before he jumped. I think about it often now when I’m afraid. Like he was shaking off all the fears he’d collected throughout his day. I wonder now if that’s what he did before he took his first doses of heroin ten years later, on a mission trip in Bolivia, or on the night he overdosed and died in his sleep at his friend’s campus apartment sixth months later.
“Your turn,” Will said to me, swimming toward us.
I squeezed Molly’s hand under the water until she let go. I didn’t have the courage for what happened next.
Terrance Wedin’s work has appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Fanzine, and other publications.