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It was close to sundown by the time we reached the picnic spot. That didn’t seem to bother Les. Jackie complained that the water would be too cold to go skinny-dipping, but I think she was joking. It’s hard to tell with her. Anyway, the chicken was delicious. I’ve tried, but I never can get the seasonings just right like she can. After dinner, Les suggested we climb a tree. It was a little weird, but I said okay. Jackie couldn’t join us in her dress, so it was just the two of us.
We started up. It was really hard to see anything in the waning light, but Les insisted we could do it. He was ahead of me the whole time, scrambling up through the branches like a squirrel. One time, I almost fell, but he caught me by the hand and pulled me up. I didn’t know he was that strong.
Eventually, we reached the top—or as close as we could get, anyway. “I’m the king of the world!” he shouted. Jackie laughed. They were a good couple. I tried to say something, but my foot slipped. I tumbled through the branches, each one handing me to the next like I was falling down the stairs. Eventually, I hit the ground. It didn’t hurt that bad, actually, although I’ll probably take it easy at the gym for the next week or so.
Jackie was by my side almost immediately. Les slid down a moment later. She grabbed one hand. He grabbed the other. “Are you alright?” they asked at the same time.
“I’m fine,” I smiled. “Couldn’t be better.”
They exchanged a look. “Let’s get going,” she said. “We don’t want to miss the concert.” At this point, I didn’t really feel like swaying and grinding to the arena rock anthems of Secret Honor, but I went along with it.
Jackie drove. Les sat in the front. I took the back middle seat. As we crested the hill, I was blinded momentarily by the last disappearing rays of sunlight that somehow managed to drill into my eyes harder than a laser pointer.
“You okay?” said Les, noticing me rubbing my eyes.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s good,” said Jackie. “We don’t want to lose you.”
* * * *
“I was hoping we could talk.”
“I don’t want to talk right now.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use that word before.”
“I use it all the time. Just not around you.”
“I know you’re angry at me.”
“You have no idea how I feel.”
“May I sit down?”
“When I first met your father—“
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Mom! Do you really think I want to hear another story about you and Dad? I get it: you were tempted, you stayed pure, I didn’t, look what happened.”
“I’m not mad at you, dear. I’m just glad you didn’t get pregnant.”
“We used protection.”
“I figured you would.”
“It was only one time anyway.”
“I didn’t stay pure.”
“I thought your father was turning away from me, so I offered him…”
“Was that when I was—“
“And you were married right after?”
“I knew a priest at a nearby church. He didn’t ask too many questions.”
“How could you never tell me about this? All this time, you’ve been treating me like a whore just because I, I…you wouldn’t even meet with Les. Just because he has two fathers—“
“Jackie, I need to tell you something. You’re going to hate me, but at least you’ll understand. Your father didn’t just turn away. He fell in love with someone.”
“Someone from the church?”
“Was it the Jewish girl in that one picture—“
“It was a man.”
“Jackie? Jackie, please don’t just sit there. Say something, anything.”
“You told Robert he was an abomination.”
“You told him he and Joey were living in sin and you didn’t want their son corrupting your daughter.”
“I am so, so sorry.”
“It’s too late now. What did you think was going to happen: if you told me, Les and I would get back together? We’re broken up, Mom. He won’t even talk to me.”
“That’s probably for the best. Give it time. Wounds heal.”
“Were you trying to heal me?”
“Every time I try to do anything to you, it fails. I tried to help you stay strong, and you spat in my face. I tried to teach you to put yourself in God’s hands, and you told me to stop controlling you. All I’ve ever done is make you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Right now, all I care about is that you still love God.”
“I still love God.”
“I was thinking I was going to write a letter. To Robert. I wanted to tell him I’m sorry about what I said about him and Joey.”
“Are you going to tell him about Dad?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“I’ll get you some paper.”
“Have you spoken to Chris?”
“Not in almost a month. He deactivated his Facebook account.”
“If you hear from him, let me know.”
* * * *
Arthur lies back and stretches his arms above his head, recalling the feeling of Chris’s warm body pressed against his. Chris is making coffee—which is unusual, since this is Arthur’s place—but he doesn’t seem to mind. From where he lies, Arthur can just see the curves of Chris’s ass peeking over the kitchen counter. That sweet, sweet ass, he thinks, and smiles.
The coffee is strong for his tastes, but that’s no matter. He doesn’t even care about Chris’s morning breath as he leans in for a kiss. “So what do you want to do today?” he asks.
Chris hesitates slightly. “Well, I have work in an hour,” he says.
“When do you get off?”
“No, I mean really.”
“Look, Arthur, you’re really cute, but I don’t want this to be a permanent thing. Can’t we just be friends?”
“Fuck you!” Arthur is surprised by the intensity of his response. He’s always liked Chris, but he never realized that his feelings were this strong. “Look,” he says, trying to control his emotions. “When you came here last night, you had this look in your eyes. Like you really, really needed someone to listen to you. It’s not like I get that many visitors out here. I figured we must’ve had something going to, you know, do what we did.”
“I came here because I thought you’d understand.”
“I’m not in love with you. I’m in love with—“
“Does she know?”
“No. I don’t know how to tell her.”
Arthur sets down his cup of coffee. Chris stands before him, stark naked, his slender body glowing in the morning sunlight. Arthur has always preferred a tight, toned body to a thickly-muscled one. “I’m not your surrogate girlfriend,” he says at last.
Chris doesn’t say a word, picking up his clothes from where they lie, having flung them off in a fit of passion the previous night, and begins to get dressed. Arthur takes both cups of coffee into the kitchen and empties them into the sink. He stands over it as the brown liquid runs down the drain, trying to think about his latest work of art, what strange and exciting pieces of scrap metal he might find in the junkyard he inhabits today, or something, anything other than the terrible loss he has just experienced. Eventually, he snaps, slamming his fist down on the edge of the sink so hard that he cries out in pain.
Chris looks up from buckling his belt. “Are you okay?” he says.
“Go…just go,” Arthur manages through clenched teeth.
Chris leaves, not closing the door behind him so that it slams against the side of the trailer. Arthur goes into the bathroom, sizing himself up in the mirror. He hates this body, hates this beard and the long, dark hair that makes him look like either a Biblical character or a homeless man, hates the scared, lonely, pathetic man staring back at him.
The roar of a car engine tells him that Chris is leaving the junkyard. He waits until he is certain that he is gone, then walks outside, surveying his kingdom. He likes this place. He likes the otherworldly atmosphere and the art he creates by welding old car parts and tools together. Most of all, he likes the knowledge that no one can enter this place and hurt him without his consent.
For better or worse, he thinks, this is my home.
* * * *
Zeke was a divine singer. What’s more, he loved doing it. His favorite movie was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a glam-rock musical adapted from an off-Broadway show about a transsexual whose operation is botched, leaving him/her with a…well, you figure it out. The movie’s final song, “Midnight Radio”, is a heart-stopper. Zeke liked to sing it as the closing song at concerts. Tonight’s was the best he and Secret Honor had had in a long time. He sings that we should hold on to one another, that tonight we would have to.
The crowd swayed and moved with the music. Zeke loved singing in his garage. His family was on good terms with the neighbors, so generally, no one complained about the loud music blaring from the house every other Friday night. But there was one person who didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. There Chris stood, bobbing his head, rocking back and forth, doing his damndest to convince everyone that he wanted to be there. It wasn’t that he wasn’t moving enough; indeed, he was moving as much as some of the band members. But the spark in his eyes was missing. On any other night, Chris would be giving off enough energy for ten people. Now, he was just another face in the crowd.
I don’t know about you, but I never understood why some people go crazy at concerts. Crowd-surfing just seems like a good way to get violated, and while I’m not normally one to complain about topless women, the sheer volume of girls ripping off their shirts causes me to wonder—oh right, the story!
Anyway, Zeke gave up wondering what was bugging Chris and tried to focus on the people who were feeling the music. There was Les with his arms around Jackie. For a Christian girl, she was a pretty uninhibited dancer. Good couple, those two, he thought. And then there were Rich and Jay, both of whom had taken off their shirts and grinding so close to each other you’d think they were a couple. Right next to them were—fuck it, what is wrong with Chris tonight? He just left for the bathroom! Whenever I go to a concert, I wait until it’s over to…okay, deep breaths. Hold on, folks, I’ll be back in a second.
Alright, I’m back. I guess I just get a little worked up sometimes. Seriously, what kind of person goes to the bathroom with two minutes left in the show? Couldn’t he hold it? He went before, and it’s not that long of a show. But when you’re a guy like Zeke, you really need to feel the energy of the audience raising you up. If there’s even one person who’s not into it, it kinda drags the whole thing down, like a fly that won’t stop buzzing in your ear.
So the song ended, and the entire room burst into applause. Zeke took a bow, then stepped into the audience to thank everyone for coming. There’s no other way to describe Zeke—he just looked cool. He wore a long black dress with heavy mascara and eyeliner. Not too many guys could look badass while cross-dressing, but he was one of them. Like that Eddie Izzard, only not funny so much as just awesome. Not that Eddie Izzard isn’t awesome. He’s my favorite transvestite comedian. Well, he’s the only one I know. I like the way that he doesn’t make the transvestite thing into the whole point of the act, even though he still talks about it.
So yeah, Zeke. That guy is awesome.
* * * *
(The lights come up on Les’s bedroom. His bed lies center left, angled slightly so that he lies neither parallel nor perpendicular to the edge of the stage. Next to his bed is a nightstand with a lamp, and downstage center is a desk and chair. The desk has a notebook on top.)
(LES is lying in bed, asleep. When the lights come up, he awakens, then rolls out of bed and comes downstage in nothing but his boxers. He sits down at the desk, picks up a pen, and is about to start writing in his notebook when a knock sounds, offstage, at his door.)
LES: Hang on!
(He reaches under his bed and pulls out a pair of pajama pants. He dons them, then picks up a Def Leppard shirt off the floor and puts it on. Before he can answer the door, however, there is the sound of a door opening and ROBERT enters stage right carrying a tray of food. ROBERT is an aging, slender man, possibly balding, with mannerisms that are on the effeminate side.)
LES: Hey, I didn’t let you in!
ROBERT (setting the tray on the desk): Oh please, I didn’t see anything. Anyway, here’s breakfast.
LES: Oh, thanks. I love French toast.
ROBERT: I know.
(LES sits down to eat. ROBERT watches him.)
LES: Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing.
LES: Don’t “what” me. You brought me breakfast because you’re tired of me sleeping until two. Good thing for me I was already up.
ROBERT: Have you started looking for a job?
LES: Yes. I applied to the Trader Joe’s on Kensington and the bakery on the corner.
ROBERT: Have you called Doris?
LES: I was going to do that today.
(ROBERT exits and reenters carrying a cordless phone which he sets in front of LES. He is about to exit when LES says his next line.)
LES: Fuck you.
ROBERT (wheeling): Excuse me?
LES: Why do people say “excuse me” when they heard you just fine? I’m sick of you not giving me any breathing room!
ROBERT: I’m just trying--
ROBERT: You know what I wish, Les?
ROBERT: I mean it. I can’t stand it, you calling him “Dad” and me by my first name like, like I’m your uncle or something. I’d rather you called me “Mom”.
LES: Is “Pop” okay?
ROBERT: Yes. Yes, Pop is fine.
LES: Good. I’ll call Doris when I’m done eating, okay?
ROBERT: Great. Look, I know you want to find a job by yourself, but most of the progress you make in this world is through connections.
LES: Got it.
ROBERT (kissing the top of his head): Bring the dishes back when you’re done, okay?
(LES nods. ROBERT is about to exit when LES stops him again.)
LES: Aren’t you gonna ask?
(ROBERT hesitates, wondering if it would do any good to resist. Finally, he gives in.)
ROBERT: How is she?
LES: She won’t talk to me.
ROBERT: It hurts a lot. There’s nothing I can say that will make it any easier.
LES: You don’t need to say anything.
(ROBERT lingers for a second, watching him eat, then exits. LES watches him go, then takes the tray off the desk and sets it on the floor, once again picking up the pen and opening the notebook.)
LES (writing): Last night, I had a dream…
(The lights go down as the scene ends.)
* * * *
There is a place in Hyland Park that everyone thinks no one else knows about. It’s right above one of the still spots in the river. Swimming in the river is forbidden, but friends and lovers have been known to ignore that rule on occasion. That no one bothers to bring any bathing suits tends not to stop them.
The view from this spot is breathtaking, although the trees block one from being spied by anyone nearby. In short, it’s a hotspot for seduction.
With all of the young people using this place as a means to get into each other’s pants, it’s a miracle that no two people ever get the same idea on one night. Whether one uses it for skinny dipping, seduction, a picnic, or all three, it’s a pretty safe bet that one and one’s companions will be alone the whole time. It’s magical that way.
No one told Les about this place. He found it while hiking one Saturday afternoon with Joey, who is quite the outdoorsman. No one told him to bring Jackie out here for a romantic dinner, then tell her that his all-time favorite song was “Nightswimming” by R.E.M., and that nothing would please him more than to do that right now with her. And even if someone had told him all that, no one but he could ever have come up with the line that sealed the deal. When she protested that she was uncomfortable getting naked, he responded, “You don’t have to be naked. But I will be.”
I’m not going to describe the event itself. For one thing, I believe Jackie and Les deserve some privacy, and for another, I think you already know what happened. The first time is rarely mind-blowing, but it’s always memorable. The sex wasn’t really what it was about anyway.
Afterwards, they fell asleep. It was a warm summer night. Les had strange dreams. He dreamt that Darth Maul from Star Wars was showing him a painting and demanding, in the most stereotypically “black” voice this side of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, that Les tell him its meaning. Les recognized the painting, although he could remember neither the title nor the artist. It depicted a pipe on the stand with the words “This is not a pipe” in French underneath it. When Les said that the pipe was just paint on a canvas, Darth Downey reached into the painting, pulled out a real pipe, and said, “You still think it’s just paint, white man?”
Les took the pipe. He doesn’t remember what happened after that. The next thing he knew, Jackie was shaking him awake, telling him that they had to get going, that she had to get to work and her mother would be wondering where she was and she’d have to lie and say she was at Marcie’s house because overnight stays were forbidden. She wasn’t scared that her mother wouldn’t believe her, but she really hated lying to her. Les told her he’d drive her straight to work.
Nobody saw them put their clothes on and pack up the picnic basket. When they headed down to the road, the people on the street were the first ones they’d seen apart from each other in over twelve hours. They loaded up the car and drove off in silence.
“Where did you get this?” Jackie asked as they pulled up to a stop sign.
Les took his eyes off the road and looked at her. In her hands, she held a pipe.
* * * *
(The trailer opens on a shot of an empty field. The weather is cold and gray. No civilization or natural landmarks in sight. Suddenly, a TV falls from the sky. Cut to a close-up as it hits the ground.)
LES (voice-over): Last night, I had a dream…
(The opening notes of the Talking Heads’ “Dream Operator” play on the soundtrack as Jackie carries a flower in a pot out to the creek, planting it alongside rows of other plants. The screen fades to black and the words, “The brain is wider than the sky.—Emily Dickinson” appear onscreen. The music stops.)
(Cut to Chris in a bathroom, staring into a mirror. He is pail and gaunt, his body language jerky. Sounds of a party can be heard through the door. He bends over and snorts a line of coke that is on the bathroom counter. As he exits the bathroom, we get a shot of his face as Def Leppard’s “Rocket” plays on the soundtrack. Chris rockets through the party in fast-motion, never interacting, barely even taking it in. The music fades as we cut to Jackie and Les sitting, fully clothed, on the edge of his bed.)
JACKIE: I’m worried about Chris.
LES: I am, too.
JACKIE: He says he can’t even sleep anymore.
LES: I know the feeling.
(The conversation continues in voice-over as we show Chris and Arthur having their impromptu bonfire. Arthur stomps and dances around the fire, acting out his story in the most dramatic fashion. Chris is delighted.)
LES: He goes places. He hangs out with people I didn’t think were his type of people. It’s almost as if he—
JACKIE: Forget it.
(Cut to Zeke at a Secret Honor concert.)
ZEKE: Who’s ready to rock out?
(The crowd cheers. A montage ensues of the band playing and the audience enjoying themselves, all done in silence. Eventually, the images flash by so quickly that it is impossible to process it all at once. Just when it threatens to become too much, we cut to a shot of Chris sitting in a chair in front of someone’s bookshelf, talking to someone off camera.)
CHRIS: I love you.
(The Flaming Lips’ “Fight Test” begins to play on the soundtrack. What follows is a montage of Jackie shouting at Les as he storms away, Chris cresting a hill and surveying the town that lies before him, and Les smashing a potted plant in his backyard.)
(Cut to Joey sitting at his kitchen table, talking to Les.)
JOEY: You’re not a man until you’ve wondered if the world would be a better place if you’re not in it.
LES: Would it?
JOEY: What do you think?
(The longest and final shot of the trailer is a long shot of Jackie, Les and Chris at a Fourth of July party. Chris is lighting fireworks in the backyard, but in the other half of the frame, we can see Jackie and Les just around the corner of the house, kissing out of sight of the others. The camera closes in on them, slowly eclipsing Chris from the frame. Eventually, their faces fill the screen. They separate and look into each other’s eyes. Fade to black as the film title, followed by release date and credits show.)
(End of trailer.)
* * * *
He sits in the corner, not saying anything, not eating or drinking anything but a glass of water. We ask if he would like to join our table. He says no.
Bob finishes butchering “Sympathy for the Devil”, and there is scattered, mostly sarcastic applause, especially from our table. There is a scraping behind me as he stands up to add his voice to the chorus we’ve heard this night.
The song starts, and I don’t recognize it, although it sounds very 90s. He starts singing, and immediately I am taken. It’s not that he’s the greatest singer in the entire world, just that there is a passion in his voice that surpasses anything else I’ve heard tonight. The song is a breakup song—my favorite kind. Something about wanting her to stay, but realizing that he can’t make her and that if she really wants to go, that’s her choice. I know the feeling. Under the table, Sheila’s hand finds mine, and she lays her head on my shoulder. Ah, bliss.
Afterwards, I stop him and tell him how much I liked his performance. He says thanks. I ask if I can buy him a drink. He says yes.
He doesn’t look twenty-one to me, but the bartender hands his ID back to him without comment and begins to mix him a mojito. We fall into a discussion about music and how it changes over the years while still keeping its soul. He likes the 90s—Nirvana, early Radiohead, some rap and hip-hop. I like the classic stuff. For me, it is, was, and always will be about Zep.
Sheila and the others are leaving. I ask if I can catch up with them later, at Dick’s. She says that’s fine. I give her a kiss, and she casts a glance back at us as I sit back down on the barstool to resume our conversation.
“So,” I said, downing the last of my Guinness. “You seeing someone special?”
He looked at me coldly. “I don’t fuck closet cases.”
“What?” I said. “Dude, what are you talking about? Did you see my girlf—“
“You looked like you were kissing a snail. There was more warmth when you patted me on the shoulder.”
“Fuck this. I thought you seemed cool. I’m outta here.”
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” he called after me as I put my hand on the doorknob. “Like you’re down in a hole, just jamming your head against it, but you can’t get out, can’t even back up or get any breathing room or anything?”
I let my hand fall. “Don’t act like you know me,” I said, turning back to him. The other patrons were staring, but I didn’t care. “You don’t know a goddamn thing about me.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” he said, patting the barstool. “Sit down. You can tell me all about it.”
I hesitated, my eyes roving all over the room as if the strangers there would call my girlfriend and tell her what happened. What the hell, I thought. I could use a rest.
I sat back down, feeling not so much that I’d dug myself out of the hole as that I’d cleared some space and could breathe easier. “You know what I hate?” I said, not taking my eyes from my empty glass. “I hate the way we’re all portrayed as sissies on TV. Aren’t there any who are just like us—you know, guys?”
“Amen to that,” he says. “Hey, I never got your name.”
I tell him. He tells me his: Zeke. We go back to talking about music. By the time we part ways, I feel much better. At least, I think I do.
* * * *
You find yourself in a large green field, surrounded on all sides by fog. Before you can wonder what you are doing there, Charlton Heston appears in the mist carrying a shotgun. He begins to fire it at you. You bounce away like a character in a video game, little electronic noises sounding every time your feet leave the ground.
Heston continues to chase you, and you find that you are no longer in a field but a parking lot, except that instead of cars, it is filled with Transformers. They appear hostile to you, and as you run from both them and Heston, a Native American man with a feather in his headband grabs you by the hand and says, “This way.”
The next thing you know, you are in a colossal factory with huge triangular windows where the walls should be. You think the Transformers cannot see you, but they find your hiding place and begin to chase you and the Native American man as you jump from catwalk to massive window sill, always getting higher and higher, never getting any farther from your pursuers.
Somehow, you are no longer in a factory, but on a tropical island. The Transformers have been replaced with pirates, and they chase you into the sea. You intend to sail away, but for some reason, there is only so much sea, as if you are all in a fishbowl and if you swim too far out, you find yourself crashing against an invisible wall.
Through a combination of speed, agility, and flat-out desperation, you manage to evade the pirates. But somehow, they grow not only more determined but more numerous, and eventually, you find yourself swimming at top speed around the outer rim of the enclosure, always escaping by only a hair’s breadth. Just when you think they are about to catch you, you slip away, but the next one is even closer, and the next, and the next, and the next…
Suddenly, you are lying shirtless on a beach. The Native American man has his arms around you, and although he still has the feather in his headband, he is now shirtless as well. You relax for a moment, thinking all will be well, but then you hear footsteps crunching in the sand. It’s Charlton Heston, and he’s come to take his revenge.
What happens next is much like what came before, with more running and hiding, more narrow escapes, and more desperation. The only thing that changes is the form of your pursuer. Charlton Heston becomes a six foot-tall carrot, then the Easter Bunny, then your second-grade teacher. The Native American man, except that he loses all of his clothes, stays the same the whole time.
Eventually, Charlton Heston shoots you. You don’t feel anything, even though you think you should be dead, what with this gaping hole in your chest. The Native American man turns to you, kisses you, and says, “It’s the cheese, Les.” Then you wake up.
* * * *
Jackie, it’s Les. I know it’s kind of weird that I’m writing in your journal without you knowing, but believe me, it’s better for both of us. I got on the train because I knew you took it home from work. I don’t know what I was going to say. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Anyway, I saw you asleep by the window with what looks like your dream journal under your arm and I decided I’d write you a message.
I love you. You know that. It didn’t work out, but I don’t think that’s why. I used to think that that was all that mattered. If you loved each other, everything else would just work itself out. I guess Chris proved us wrong, huh?
Tell your mother I’m sorry for what I said about her garden. She’ll know what I mean. Also, I’ll ask Robert if he can send her his omelet recipe. He’s got this one with cheese and mushrooms that’s totally killer. I know you really like cheese.
I didn’t get on this train to talk about omelets. Truth is, I don’t really know why I got on here. I guess I just got so fed up with both of us refusing to talk to the other, then deciding that we wanted to talk just when the other had decided they didn’t want to that I had to do something about it. But now that I think about it, there isn’t really much to say. You’ve moved on, I’ve decided that you’re not really what I want in a girlfriend, and Chris is…I don’t even know where he is.
Actually, there is one thing I’d like to say: whatever did or didn’t happen between you two, I forgive you. I’m not saying that there’s anything that you need forgiveness for, just, well, you know what I mean.
Your stop is coming up. I’m going to get off before that. I don’t want you to see me before I get off the train. This could be the last time I ever see you at all. That’s probably not true. If we wait a couple years, we could try being friends. Zeke says it’s a good idea to wait a couple years.
There’s one more thing I need to say before I go: I didn’t dream last night. I woke up this morning and the last thing I remembered was going to bed. That’s kind of magical, isn’t it? Anyway, I have to leave you now. I hope when you wake up and read this, you feel a lot better. I’m starting to feel pretty good these days myself.
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