The Erotic Lives of Vegetables -Austin, 2001

littlecity-12:37 a.m.

The upstairs neighbors are having sex again.

I cannot sleep.  I navigate the familiar dark of my apartment from the bedroom to the bathroom, bare feet, white as lonely irises against the pale, blue tile of the bathroom floor.  Standing in front of the toilet with one hand on the lid and the other on my penis, taking careful aim, I hear the unmistakable sound of hot, sweaty monkey sex.

I stand perfectly still, suddenly very awake.  I hear the rhythmic squeak of bedsprings, the dull thud of a headboard slamming against a wall, a woman’s breathy squeals of approaching ecstasy, the deeper bass of a man’s low moans.  I find myself holding my breath, straining my ears.

The hum of the refrigerator.

The whir of the air conditioner.

The ticking of the hallway clock.

Keep going, I will them to continue.  But after a moment the sounds of sex subside.  I remain still another moment just in case the sounds resume, but when nothing more happens, I urinate, flush, and walk back toward my bedroom in the dark.

5:23 a.m. 

I wake up nearly an hour and 40 minutes before the alarm is set to go off.  If I fall back to sleep immediately, I can still get an hour and thirty-seven more minutes of sleep. My brain has made this calculation before I realize it. I try to grab on to the tail end of a vagrant dream, just behind my eyes and disappearing, try to remember it, but then remember that if I am to fall asleep immediately I must stop thinking.

5:24 a.m. 

I cannot stop thinking about not thinking.

6:38 a.m.  

Now there is too little time to go back to sleep.  I wonder if I should get up early, shave, make an effort to look nice for a change.  Maybe if I looked more professional I’d get some recognition, a promotion, a “shining star”, something.

6:57 a.m.  

I turn off the alarm three minutes early, thoughts of work looming large in my mind.  I squeeze my eyes shut tight.

7:00 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:05 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:11 a.m.  

I force myself out of bed and into the shower. I stand beneath the steaming water with eyes still closed.  As long as they are closed I can pretend that work does not exist. I find myself thinking about the sounds of lovemaking I’d heard earlier. Suddenly I’m aroused, turgid in the shower. Despite the fact that I am late, I find myself masturbating onto the blue shower curtain.

7:28 a.m. 

I run out the door, late.  There was no time to shave.

7:29 a.m.  

I run out the door for the second time, having forgotten my glasses the first time.

7:45 a.m.  

Traffic.  My car crawls bug-like down a monochrome stretch of highway, inching beneath the thin, anemic, gray of morning car exhaust and fog.  I find myself looking into the windows of the cars beside me, wondering about the lives of the occupants inside.  I invent lives.

The woman beside me has just left her husband and three children to meet a lover in San Antonio.  A dark, Hispanic lover.  A dark, Hispanic, lesbian lover.  They’re going to fly down to Mexico, to Cabo San Lucas to walk hand in hand along sunlit beaches and drink exotic blue drinks from coconuts, to take pictures standing in front of Incan relics, to make love in the rain in an abandoned cabana by the beach.

8:02 a.m.  

Two minutes late for work, I leap into my ergonomic chair and start my computer.   I open a diet coke and drink my breakfast, squinting beneath the sickly florescent, carpeted walls of my cubicle.  I read somewhere that two thirds of America’s work force is in customer service.  The lucky ones who are working.  The knowledge does not reassure me.

On the windowless wall behind my cubicle there is a cardboard palm tree and blue construction paper waves, a cutout paper sunset, and words that say, “No one is an Island.”  Above that there is a sign that reads, “There’s no reason for it, it’s just Policy!”  I’ve never been able to determine whether this was meant as a joke.

I draw eight squares on my company provided note-pad. As each hour passes, I will dutifully cross out a square until the day is finally over.

I put on my headset.

8:04 a.m.  

The phone rings.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling with my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper, this is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lynn?”

“No.  Lance, like Lancelot.” I say.

“I have a problem.   I can’t get this damned toilet paper you people make off the roll.  It just tears to shreds!”

“Okay,” I say.  “Are you trying to tear at the perforations?”

“The what?”

“The little dotted lines that separate the squares of paper,” I explain.

“No.  Is that what I should be doing?”

“Yes,” I say, sighing deeply.  “That is what you should be doing.”

“Well.  Somebody ought to put constructions on the back of these rolls so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

“I’ll be sure to forward that along to my supervisor, sir.”  I say.  “Is there anything else I can do or answer for you?”

“No.”

“In that case, thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet…”

The familiar silence of dead air.

10:15 a.m.  

Time for my first fifteen minute break.

I receive a text from Hannah.  “Sorry about last night.  Didn’t feel like going out.  Drinks tonight?”

I reply, “Sounds lovely!”

10:32 a.m.  

I log back onto the phone two minutes late.

The phone immediately rings. I put another hash mark on my notepad, one for every call. Two and a half hours in and there are already 20 hash marks.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling for my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper.  This is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lane?”

“No, Lance, like the magician, Lance Burton.”

11:27 a.m.

I wonder how many more years I’ll be sitting in this cubicle, or some facsimile, being strangled by a tie. I wonder why there’s even a dress code since I only interact with people over the phone anyway. My co-worker Marc is wearing a blue, velour shirt with yellow rhinestones sewn onto it.  Everyone has a different conception of business casual.

11:28 a.m.

I have the sudden, disconcerting realization that if I retire at the age of 65 it means I’ll have to spend 36 more years working. My existential crisis threat-level teeters between orange and red.

12:07 p.m.

Cinnamon Brown does not believe in dinosaurs.

She is my co-worker, and I mentioned reading an article that suggests birds evolved due to a drastic change in dinosaur development, and she says, flat out, “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.”

I pause for a moment, unsure how to process this information before I finally say, “But what about fossils?”

Cinnamon thinks fossils are a hoax implemented by scientists so that people stop believing in God.

I have no response to this.

1:00 p.m.  

Because I’m broke, I have lunch in the office instead of going out. The employee break-room is subdued.  Someone has stolen my low fat frozen pasta so I steal someone else’s macaroni and cheese.   It’s a vicious cycle.  There are two microwaves at my disposal, however, both have “out of order” signs taped to them, so I put the macaroni and cheese back in the fridge and get a candy bar and a bag of chips from the vending machine.

A group of my fellow employees sit in front of a muted television watching a closed captioned, Spanish soap opera.  All of them are on their cell phones, sexting, looking through the online want ads, posting pictures of cats on social media sites.  A girl in a band is folding up flyers for their next gig.  “Bitter Semen and the Fallopian Tubes!  Live at Flaming Moe’s, Friday10:30!”

“You should come!” She says.

“I’ll try to.” I say, having learned that when it comes to co-worker relationships it’s always best to be non-commital.

I ask two of my co-workers who are openly perusing the want ads, “How’s it going?  Anything interesting?”

“We’re being downsized.”  Janice, the 300 pound secretary wheezes.  “Rumor has it they’re outsourcing all our jobs to India.”

“They’ve been saying that for years.” I say, but I secretly hope the rumor is true.

I imagine some unfortunate Indian man in a shirt and tie in some Indian call center saying, “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes” with his Indian accent, and I half smile, empathizing.

“The only thing worse than having a job is not having one.” Janice says.

1:48 p.m.  

I go to the bathroom.   Someone has taped a sign above the urinal that reads, “Employee Satisfaction Survey, Question 27:  While at work I often long for death.  a. completely agree, b. usually agree, c. agree, d. somewhat agree, e. liar.”  The rubber, splash-guard in the urinal is black with white writing that says, “Don’t do drugs.”

1:58 p.m.  

The temperature is always 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the perfect temperature to encourage productivity without putting everyone to sleep.  No Musak plays on the speakers.  Instead white noise muffles the sounds of coughs, squeaking chairs, computers and air conditioners, making one gray sound the same color as the cubicles, the carpet, and the sky through the cracks of blinds over tinted windows.

I sit at my desk, breaking then re-sharpening the lead of my pencil until it’s a tiny nub. I darken in another square on my notepad, denoting another hour passed.

2:17 p.m.

I ask my co-worker in the opposite cubicle how her acting classes are coming along, and get no response.  I say, “Melissa?”

I hear a deep voice answer, “Who’s Melissa?”

“The person who normally sits in your cube.” I say.

“I’ve been here two months.”

2:30 p.m.

On my second fifteen minute break I receive another text from Hannah.  “Not feeling 2 great.  Some other time?”

I reply, “Sure.”

Over the wall of my cubicle, I can hear one of my co-workers quietly sobbing.

2:46 p.m.  

I log back in to my computer.

“Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s toilet paper, this is Lance, how may I help you?”

“Claire?”

“Yeah.” I say.  “This is Claire.  How may I help you?”

4:00 p.m.  

“Lance, do you have a moment to go over your Quarterly Performance Summary?”  My manager is the physical manifestation of my greatest fears in life, bald, arrogant (despite the lack of any accomplishment to warrant it), pudgy, and stuck in a middle management rut in a call center for a third rate toilet paper manufacturer.

I say, “Sure,” dismayed by what will inevitably be a painful experience, but glad to get off the phone for a while.

In the dimly lit “Breakout” room we sit across from one another in plush, purple chairs.

“Well Lance,” he begins, “as always you sound very courteous and professional on the phone.  Your quality is excellent, but I am concerned by the number of absences on your chart the past three months.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, fidgeting.  “I’ve been a bit under the weather these past couple months, but I’m feeling much better now.”

“And your productivity recently is slightly below the group average,” he continues.  “If you look at these charts you can clearly see your log on and log off times…”

My manager’s voice becomes a dull, monotonous bit of static. I imagine how different my life could be if only I had some other job.  On a TV show I watched once, there was a Candy Expert whose job was to taste and judge candy and lend his or her candy expertise.  How does one get that kind of job?

I was valedictorian of my graduating high school class.  I have a college degree.  How is it possible that I’m barely making above minimum wage working in a call center for a toilet paper company?  What decisions have I made in my life that have led me to this place?

Every instinct tells me to quit, but I’ve learned to ignore my instincts.

“Where do you expect to be in five years?”  My manager asks.

“I’m sorry?”  I say, caught off guard.

“You’ve been here for over three years now.  You’re a good worker, for the most part, but you don’t show any initiative.  What is your plan?”

“Well,” I say, “This is really just my day job.  I’m really a writer.”

“Yeah.”  My manager laughs, sarcastically.  “So am I.”

4:57 p.m.  

The phone rings.  I hang up without answering and log off early with a sigh. I rip off the top page of my notepad covered in hash marks and darkened squares and throw it in the blue, recycle bin, leaving a fresh white page for tomorrow. I think of the meeting with my manager and frown.  I imagine a newspaper headline that reads, “Manager Dies in Karma Related Accident, Local Office Rejoices.”  I smile.

5:03 p.m.  

Traffic on the interstate on the way home is bumper to bumper.  I find myself holding my breath from the car exhaust. I stare out of the window at the car beside me.  A young man with spiky hair and rock-star bumper stickers and sunglasses despite the gloom is rocking out to some unheard music.  I imagine that he is a musician, a drummer in a punk band.  To relax, he listens to Jazz.  He goes home to his loft in the city with hardwood floors. He cooks intricate gourmet meals and eats them on his starlit balcony with a glass of wine.  I press my forehead against the dusty film of the car window, willing the young man to look at me.  But he doesn’t.

I drive down the same stretch of road every day, I think.  Every day down the same stretch of road, at the same time every day, and all of these people also drive everyday at the same time as me.  Why is it that I never recognize a single person in these cars from one day to the next?

5:47 p.m.  

Home is a dubious apartment in an even more dubious neighborhood. My answering machine says, “You have no new messages.” I only even still have a landline at my mother’s insistence.

5:55 p.m. 

I look in the refrigerator which is sterile and white, empty except for a few moldy, unrecognizable vegetables in the crisper, some peanut butter (no bread), some pickles, a Tupperware container filled with peas, some dry and crusty mustard, a package of tofu and a carton of orange juice.  I take out a frozen dinner from the freezer that claims to be a healthy alternative to all those other frozen dinners.  A close inspection of the nutrition facts shows that the only thing that differentiates it from its fellows is that there is less of it.  I put it in the microwave anyway.

5:57 p.m. 

I look through the mail.  There is a sale for a discount clothing store, but no attractive guys.  I throw it away.  Then there are three solicitations for new credit card accounts.  I rip them all in half and throw them away.  There are two credit card bills.  I put these in a pile of unpaid bills that I will pay when I get paid again, (days after all of them are due).  Last up is a Christian singles club addressed to me (or occupant).

I call the number on the bottom and politely ask to be removed from their mailing list.  When they ask me why, tell them, “Because I’m a Gay, Atheist Vegetarian.”  I hang up the phone with a feeling of satisfaction.

5:59 p.m.

I remove the frozen dinner from the microwave.  The edges are burnt, but the middle is still frozen.  I attempt to eat it anyway.

6:02 p.m.  

My phone rings.  “May I speak to Lance Brister, please?”

I eye the phone suspiciously.  “He’s not here right now.” I say.

“Then may I speak to the lady of the house?”  The voice asks.

“This is the lady of the house!”  I say in the butchest voice I can muster.  “So what did you want?”

Silence.  The other person disconnects.

6:47 p.m.  

The phone rings.  “Hi, this is Mandy with the Statesman.  Is this Lance Brister?”

I say, “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak English.”

“Mr. Brister, I’m not trying to sell you anything or make you take some survey.  I’d just like to let you know about an incredible offer that our newspaper is making to its readers.”

I say, “I do not exist.”

“Mr. Brister, is there a better time for us to contact you about this?”

I say, “Yes,” and hang up the phone.  I recognize that Mandy is only doing her job, a job she no doubt hates as much as I hate mine, but I can offer no solidarity. I’m quietly amazed that newspapers still exist, along with landlines and paper mail.

7:27 p.m.  

“Large, soy, no whip hot chocolate?”  The tattooed barista asks when I go to the counter.  I don’t know his name, but he, like all of the baristas at the Small World Café, knows my order without me having to ask.

I imagine saying, “No, tonight I’ll have an Italian soda for a change,” but I think better of it. I like hot chocolate.

8:14 p.m.  

Looking through the glass doors outside, I see a pair of men in leather jackets talking on their cellular phones.  I wonder if they’re talking to one another and smile.  A student sits at the table across from me in an unseasonable white tank top.  His brow is furrowed as he pours over a chemistry book.  Another two young men with early tans sit beside my table talking about how many carbohydrates should be in their diets and what exercise regimen they should begin.  I glance back and forth at faces, standing at the counter, behind the counter, at full lips, dark eyes, young, smooth skin, intense brows.  The faces I see lean into one another when they speak.  The faces either do not see me, or see me and dismiss me.

In my notebook I draw the sign of Cancer.  I write one line, “I sit across from you in coffee houses, too afraid to speak to you.”

I think to myself that I should leave, that there is no reason to stay, but I remain sitting with pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to come.

“I’ll just stay until 8:30,” I think as dark begins to slip into the clouds outside and everywhere, descending.

8:30 p.m. 

“I will stay until 9:00,” I amend as 8:30 slips by and I remain unspoken to.  Outside a sudden burst of rain pelts onto the concrete sidewalk.

Bored, I walk up to the counter to order another hot chocolate.

The barista says, “Another rip roaring Wednesday night, huh?”

8:37 p.m.  

There is a young man with dark hair so beautiful that when he leaves he takes all of the air out of the room with him.  I sit and silently resent the young man for being young, for not having even said goodbye, without stopping to wonder why it should make me sad that a stranger didn’t say goodbye to me.

9:03 p.m.  

“I will wait until it stops raining,” I say to myself, looking at the sky of blackened clouds above the dull, orange street lamps.

“Lance?”  A voice beside me asks.

Startled into looking up, I see an attractive man in his late twenties, who seems somehow familiar, though I can’t place the face just yet.

“Yes?”

“Hey, it’s Steve.” The young man says, shaking my hand.  “We used to work together at that shit-hole, Stars and Wipes.”

“Oh yeah.”  I say, remembering now.  We’d been hired the same time.  We’d trained together and complained about the ridiculousness of the company and the training propaganda.  We’d made fun of the boring trainer’s lisp. We’d reassured ourselves that we were only there temporarily until we got a break in the writing world. The only difference between us was that his stint was temporary.

“So what’s up, guy?” Steve asks.

I say, “Oh, you know.” I find myself folding up pieces of poetry and dropping them into my half-full coffee cup. “How about you? I ask.

“I just sold my third screenplay.” Steve says, grinning broadly with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.

“Oh.”  I say, dismayed.  “That’s really…” I am unable to think of the appropriate adjective.

“Yeah.”  Steve agrees.  “So, buddy, what’re you up to these days?  How is post shit-hole life treating you?”

I pause before answering.  “I’m actually still working at said shit-hole.”

“Oh.”  He says, suddenly visibly uncomfortable.  He looks at his cell phone, though it hasn’t made any noise.  “You hated that place more than I did.”  He looks for a way out.  “Still, you must be like a supervisor or something by now, huh?”

“No.”  I say, ashamed, but enjoying Steve’s now obvious discomfort.  “I’m still doing the same job.  I’m even in the same cubicle as when we started.”

“Oh.”  He says, having already checked out of the conversation. “Well, it was really good seeing you, Dave.  I’ve got to take off though.  I’m meeting some people.”

“Okay.” I say. “Congrats.”

“Take care.” He says. “Good luck with…everything.” He makes his hasty retreat.

9:30 p.m.  

I leave the coffeehouse, packing up my books and laptop without looking at anyone.

9:47 p.m.  

Back at home the first thing that I do is check my messages.

There are none.

I turn on my computer.

10:00 p.m.  

I have two options.  I can try to finish a short story and submit it to a writing contest, or I can work on my supposed novel.

10:01 p.m.  

Net porn.

10:17 p.m.

I have two options.  I can watch a black and white French film with subtitles, or I can watch the impassioned South American documentary with subtitles.

10:18 p.m.  

I watch some horrible reality TV show where people attempt to cook while being angrily berated by a doughy-faced soccer player, while simultaneously surfing the net on my laptop.

10:34 p.m. 

I should probably get ready for bed.

12:07 a.m.  

I really should get ready for bed.

1:02 a.m.  

How have I spent two hours watching video clips of baby sloths?

1:04 a.m.  

I attempt to convince myself to go to sleep, but begin to dread the upcoming workday and find it impossible to do so. Eventually the Earth will be absorbed by the sun, and none of this will matter.  Of course that’s billions of years down the road, and I’ll have long been dust, an infinitely small particle in an ever expanding universe that is unmoved by my existence or lack of existence.

1:05 a.m. 

I lie in bed, fully clothed with all the lights on, staring at the ceiling.  Upstairs, the neighbors are having sex, again.  “Who’s your Crazy Monkey ?”  The man shouts.

“You’re my Crazy Monkey!”  A woman shouts back in reply.  Then, “Oh yeah! You’re my crazy monkey! You’re my crazy monkey!”

It is raining again.

I am no one’s crazy monkey.

1:15 a.m.

I get ready for bed.  Brushing my teeth, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.  A thin, pale body.  The dark brown hairs of my chest.  The wrinkles beginning to form around my eyes and mouth.  The thinning hair above my forehead.  In places I can see my scalp.  I squint until my image blurs, smoothes out, disappears, and Cheshire Cat’s itself into a fading smile.  Then I rinse my mouth, turn out the bathroom light, and go to bed.

1:18 a.m. 

I lie on a bed of dinosaur bones, on my back, trying to position myself around a spring, but no matter how I insinuate myself, it grinds into my kidneys.  I try first my left side, then my right to no avail.  One leg outside the blankets.  Both legs.  Neither leg.  It is too hot beneath the blanket, too cold outside it.  I cannot sleep.

Some people count sheep.  Fat little, stumpy Q-tips leaping over wooden fences.  I count the different ways that the world could end. This is my discordant lullaby, my nighttime ritual.

One.  An asteroid crashes into some large, metropolitan area sending a plume of ash that blocks out the sun, causing mass extinction.

Two.  Uncontrollable greenhouse gases raise the temperature of Earth enough to melt the polar ice caps. Coastal cities flood. The temperatures continues to rise until the Earth is a bubbling, unbearable liquid planet.

Three.  Some crazed dictator sets off a nuclear holocaust, starting a chain reaction of exploding bombs, leaving the world radioactive. The survivors are all mutants, scouring the barren wasteland for any usable item from the pre-war days.

Four.  Alien invasion completely obliterates humanity, those of us who aren’t enslaved are cloned as an endless chain of people burgers for some intergalactic gourmet restaurant.

Five.  A virulent pandemic wipes out 90 percent of the population, sending the remaining populace back into the middle ages, struggling to survive.

Six.  The robots become self aware, and destroy us before we find a way to destroy the universe.

Seven.  Zombie apocalypse.

Eight.  I find my mind drifting off toward the edge of sleep. I need to do this every night. Destroy the world so that I can bear to wake up and face another day.

2:37 am

My cell phone rings, waking me from a fitful sleep.  I fumble around the bedside table for the phone in the familiar dark of my apartment.  I hesitate when I pick it up, not recognizing the number, thinking that a phone call this late can only mean something bad.

The phone rings again, startling me, and I answer, “Hello?”

“Is Eddie there?”

I hear loud music in the background, the sound of laughter.  Thinking I might have misheard, I say, “Huh?”

The voice on the phone says, “Tell that asshole we’re leaving without him.”

The phone disconnects.

I stare into the dark at the phone before rolling back over to try to sleep again.

Just four hours and twenty-three minutes until I have to be awake to go to work again.  Which means nine hours and twenty-three minutes until lunch.  About fifteen hours and twenty-three minutes until I’m home again, and 20 hours until I’ll be back in bed longing for sleep to wash over me. I try to stop thinking about the minutes, the hours, and days that make up my life.  The fragments make one day interchangeable with any other.  I need to get some sleep, to momentarily forget the carbon-heavy belly of my still-born days, to lose even the faintest flicker of myself, to lie on my body’s reflection in the middle of a rain swept street.  To lose myself in dreams.

Astral Projections – Austin, 1999

Things that seem like a good idea when you’re horny rarely continue to do so when the feeling passes. Despite having already learned this life lesson, I choose to ignore it, because I’m horny. This explains why I’m driving downtown on a Sunday night to meet a man I’d chatted up on some sleazy hook-up site instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour like a more responsible citizen.

I see him first and am relieved. He looks just like his picture, indy funk in his early thirties, darkly balding with serious lips and laser tag eyes. He is sitting on the stoop of Spider  House holding an oversized cup of coffee, finishing a cigarette. He is a thrift store sweater in a vintage jacket and clunky shoes, worn and comfortably corduroy, in a warm, fuzzy way that implies snuggling and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

“Hey.” I say, as I James Dean up to him with my hands in my pockets. I am a t-shirt and rolled up blue jeans, suddenly self conscious, suddenly too pale and too skinny, suddenly afraid he’s going to see me and bolt, or pretend he doesn’t speak English, or that his name is Edgar and I must be looking for someone else. There are precedents.

“Hey.” He says, standing up. “Lance?” I agree that I am. He smells like stale cologne and smoke as he presses against me with an introductory hug. But I smell love on a molecular level, in coffee cups, in his pockets, in the tiny creases beside his eyes. There is an exchange of protons and electrons, and in my stomach an internal mushroom cloud of fumbling desire quietly implodes.

We both know it’s too late on a Sunday night for the coffee to be casual, but I’m still pretending innocence. “Sometimes coffee is just coffee,” I tell myself. “Eleven o’clock coffee on a Sunday night just means we’re alternative, not desperate.” But let’s face it, I’m wearing my just-in-case underwear. My body, at least, takes the situation for what it is, a hook-up, and responds accordingly.

He leaves one arm around my waist and says, “Where do you want to sit?”

“Anywhere is fine,” I tell him. I become so aware of his hand on the small of my back that it feels almost uncomfortable. The absent minded familiarity of it is burning through my t-shirt. It is impossible to think of anything else except how long it’s been since I’ve been touched by another person.

“Do you want some coffee?” He asks.

“I don’t like coffee.” I say, and immediately regret saying it, because I don’t want to seem negative or weird, so I try to recover by adding, “I mean I like it, but only if it has so much sugar and cream that it no longer actually resembles coffee.  So what’s the point?”

“Oh, you’re one of those.” He says.

“I like the way it smells?” I have a habit of ending statements with question marks like I’m not really certain of anything, because I’m not.

“You’re cute.” He says as he leads me to some benches in a corner beneath a tree criss-crossed with strings of year-round colored Christmas lights.

“No I’m not,” I blush. The smallest compliment and I turn into a stuttering, human lobster. “Anyway, I’m glad you think so.” I smile and say, “You too.”  I’m encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t invented an early meeting yet, an imaginary boyfriend, or some terrible, wasting disease before disappearing into the blind-date ether.

“Thanks,” he grins. “I was here earlier tonight with my roommate.  We had a couple beers and chilled.”

“Cool.” I say, even though I think beer is as repulsive as fermented dishwater.  I look around at the benches, the coffeehouse girls with their poetry notebooks, the heroin armed waitresses, square jawed bus-boys, the armless, outside statues, anything but his face that only looks at me.

“I used to come here all the time.” I say.

“Why’d you stop?” He asks, interested.

I tell him I don’t remember and excuse myself to buy a hot chocolate and re-group.

I’d stopped going to Spider House the summer after Jeremy moved to Minneapolis, taking down his Hopper prints, his Beatles CDs, his Monty Python DVDs, leaving one half of the closet empty. That summer and that place are superimposed over one another. Reckless nights with tall, blond impostors. The French films. The Russian novels. My heartbreak had an international flair.

I sat outside, slapping mosquitoes, smiling too eagerly at any guy wearing Converse sneakers, picking the blood smeared legs of squashed insects off my pale, white arms. It was a summer of carnage, insect and otherwise. My little, red heart was only the latest in a string of casualties. Everyone I knew had been dumped as soon as the semester ended and the objects of our respective affections flew to Minske, or New York, or Minneapolis.

I sat outside with the students who either couldn’t afford to leave, or who had summer classes. I sat with my same backpack, my Cherry Italian Soda, my Russian novel, even though I’d graduated a semester before, because the life of a student was the only one I knew. Already I was becoming obsolete, replaced by newer models, hipsters in skinny jeans and matching haircuts who listened to bands I’d never heard of.

I’d stopped going to Spider House because I couldn’t escape my burgeoning mediocrity, the unavoidable, universal truth that I’d become a twenty-something failure. My defeat was worn into the seams of the threadbare couches, scuffed on the unswept hardwood floors and buried beneath flea market rugs, invisible to strangers, maybe, but inescapable. Writing in journals and pretending to read, sipping overpriced beverages and looking for love in the bottom of every coffee cup had become my routine. I’d stopped going once the barista knew my order without me having to tell him because I was too ashamed that my life consisted of nothing else.

“If it was clear,” he says, when I sit down again, “We could see the Leonids.”

“The what?” I sip my hot chocolate gingerly, wishing I’d ordered tepid chocolate instead in order to avoid burning my tongue in case the evening leads to kissing of the French variety, as I suspect it might.

“The meteor shower,” he says. “It’s supposed to be phenomenal tonight.”  The two of us are looking into the clear, night sky.  The stars above us are dimmed and invisible from the light pollution of the city.

His insight into things celestial pleases the romantic in me. “Are you one of those guys who knows the names of constellations?” I ask.

“No.” He says.

I have an infinite capacity for disappointment.

“Do you go to Cons?” He asks, sitting perpendicular to me, his arm draped casually around my shoulder. Every move he makes seems so natural and fluid, and my own movements seem all the more spastic by comparison. I’m completely incapable of acting naturally.

“Is that a club?” I ask. I can be pretty oblivious.

“No. You know. Conventions?” He’s smiling quizzically at me like he’s discovered some new species of marine life but hasn’t decided how important his find is.

All I can imagine is a bunch of old men in red fezzes with name tags, and a cheap tablecloth punch bowl in a room full of folding chairs.

“You mean, like Shriners?” I ask.

“No.” He says. “Like, just a bunch of sci-fi fans and hardcore nerds. They can get pretty wild.”

I am quietly horrified, pegging him as a Magic: The Gathering player, one of those Society for Creative Anachronism geeks, sitting at a Renaissance fair in a Lyrca Star Trek uniform brandishing an oversized turkey leg. The thought repels me. Nothing good can come of this.

“You want to go back to my place and watch a movie or something?” He asks.

“Yes.” I answer without hesitation. What can I say? The things that repulse me can also attract me.

I follow him back to his apartment, me in my brick colored Laotian, economy car and he in his beige Volvo, driving faster than I’m entirely comfortable as we make our way along the one way streets downtown, afraid of losing him at intersections. I realize that one of two things is about to happen: 1). Either we are going to go back to his apartment where we will meander through some pointless small talk before having awkward sex on his small, springy bed, or 2). We will actually watch a movie. I wish I had a breath mint.

At this point we are barely more than wires crossing, than messages sent through phone lines, through the skeletal branches of winter trees, buried beneath the cold stone of vagrant city sidewalks, whispered along the peeling whitewash of suburban sprawl, a flickering image on my computer screen transferred electronically to his. But by the time I reach his apartment, I’ve gay married us and have us rooming in a loft downtown living scenes of wet nosed puppy Christmases and candlelit saxophone dinners with wine glasses, an adopted Guatemalan baby, his and his matching bath towels. My kinkiest fantasy is always a rough approximation of domesticity.

Inside his apartment I make an immediate b-line to his bookshelf only to be dismayed by its contents. His collection consists entirely of vegan cook books, biographies of the Dalai Lama, and pulp science fiction novels. My ability to imagine us adopting a Guatemalan baby is becoming more and more difficult with every new disclosure, but I still somehow manage to convince myself that there is a future laid out for us, a silver anniversary and a two-car garage. The truth is, I find it nearly impossible to have sex with someone if I can’t at least pretend that it might lead to some conventional life like the one my parents wanted for me.

We sit on his hand me down sofa with his yappy, little dog between us, the kind a wealthy, blond heiress might keep in her designer purse, nervous and deranged, all eyes and fangs. I get the impression that the dog hates me, and the feeling is mutual.

“I’ve got Jem and the Holograms and Masters of the Universe on DVD, and some old, horror movies, if you want to watch something.” He says.

“I’m fine with anything.” I say, inwardly horrified that we’re actually going to watch a movie.

“I’m going to grab a drink,” he says, standing. “Can I get you something?”

“Whatever you’re having is great.” I peruse his movies while he gets the drinks. Saturday morning cartoons from his childhood. B-horror movies. Documentaries on organic farming and spirituality.  I think, “My soul-mate would never watch The Secret.”

He brings me back a beer. I resign myself to it. I’m a lightweight who hardly ever imbibes so, half a beer later, I’m giggling at everything he says. I’m the kind of drunk who laughs constantly and tells people he loves them whether he does or not.

We watch Jem and the Holograms and agree that the Mysfits’ songs really were better. His hand is inching closer and closer to my knee.  He’s cute enough that I’m willing to overlook his poor taste and hippie underpinnings.  I imagine light-hearted arguments over our Guatemalan baby’s diet and religious upbringing.

When he tries to kiss me, his dog leaps to fill the space between us, nipping at my jugular, demanding his attention, licking his chin. She looks at me with one eye, letting me know where I stand, which is mauled and limping and preferably outside somewhere if she had any say in the matter.

“Do you have a dog?” He asks.

“I’m more a cat person.” I say.

“Do you have a cat?” He asks.

“No.”  I answer, smiling too broadly.

“Want to go back to my room?” He asks.

“Yes.”

He leaves the dog outside. I smirk at her as he closes the door. Small victories. He takes his clothes off and I admire his hardwood floors. His body is thin and pale, dark hair in sparse patches on his chest and belly like transplants steadfastly refusing to take root. He pulls me close and kisses me, his eyes closed, mine open, looking for a place to set my beer. Finding none I hold it awkwardly until he takes it from my hand and sets it on the bedside table.

Things proceed in the usual fashion ending in us both naked on his small, springy bed when he asks, “Do you want to fuck me?”

“If you’ve got the condoms and lube, then I’ve got the time.” I say. I have no idea who I am sometimes.

“I’ve got lube, but no condoms.” He says. “Is that a problem?”

My body becomes completely immobile.  Reading the horror on my face and my rapidly waning erection, he tries to reassure me with, “It’s okay, I tested negative a couple months ago.”

I am not reassured.

“I don’t do it without a condom,” I say, when really I just want to flee and not look back. He’s suddenly radioactive, and my built in Geiger counter does everything in its power to warn me away.

Disappointed, he says, “It’s cool. I can just suck you off.”

This happens. I float out of my body, drift into the cold night beneath stars, beneath street lamps, past all night diners, closed book stores, the late night coffee houses, through phone lines, radio waves, through all the dead ends and misconnections, thinking, “There’s someone out there for me.”

Somewhere.

Not here.

“Will I see you again?” He asks as I’m leaving, his face full of sideways eyes and crooked smiles. I appreciate his misplaced optimism. The two of us are on either side of his half-open doorway, him silhouetted in orange light from inside, me pale beneath the dim light of early morning sky.

“Maybe.” I say, my breath hanging soft and gray in the air between us like a question mark.

“Maybe later this week?” He presses, squinty in a pair of boxer shorts. Saggy elastic.  Any lingering romance disappears in the harsh light of morning.   He becomes another notch on my internal bedpost that, at this point, must be splintered and devoid of paint.

I slide out of his fingers, catlike through the crack of the open door, and out into the city to the street below.

“Maybe.” I call back to him. But we both know that I don’t mean it.

A Christmas to Forget

xmas2010The night before the night before Christmas we opened our presents to each other. He got me a new pair of headphones, and Ninja-bread cookie cutters. I got him an overpriced workout hula hoop and some essential oils. He’d considerately sent me the links to each in the weeks leading up to X-Mas in his completely unsubtle way of letting me know what he wanted.

We’d attempted to go out for holiday sushi, but the internet led us first to a Japanese place that was closed, and then to one that didn’t seem to exist. After driving aimlessly, we finally ended up at Kirby Lane which is our default restaurant when nothing else pans out. Christmas music played overhead as I ate a bison Frito pie and listened to his little brother quote lines from Will Ferrel movies like some b-grade comedy savant.

Back at our unfurnished apartment, our stockings were hung over the fireplace, empty because we’d raided them repeatedly for candy in the days leading up to X-Mas. The lights on our tiny tree blinked on and off in epileptic fits of holiday cheer. When C opened his present, he smiled and hugged me, but I couldn’t help but feeling like a failure. Last year I’d gotten him an iPad. Then again, everything about this year is watered down, a more disappointing version of what was expected, so why should Christmas be any different?

On the morning of Christmas Eve, C and his little brother drove me to meet my parents. Because C had to work that evening he needed the car, so my parents volunteered to come pick me up. But because they’re terrified of “the big city” they wouldn’t come all the way into Austin, so we met them in Bastrop.

To her credit, my mom got out and shook C’s hand and told him it was nice to see him again, and did her best to smile as if she meant it. My dad, on the other hand, didn’t even get out of the car. C and his little brother drove away waving, and I looked back, wishing that I was spending the holiday with them at the Alamo Drafthouse watching the Hobbit sequel.

On the ride home my dad asked what C did for a living, and asked if the car was in my name or both of our names. My grandmother called every few minutes, asking what day it was, when she was supposed to take her pills, which pills she was supposed to take, where her pills were, etc…

“If I ever get like this, I’m going to kill myself, so you won’t have to deal with it.” My mom says over her shoulder to me in the back seat.

We stop at a grocery store to buy some coconut flakes for a pie, and my dad declares that it’s “The Bad HEB” because only Mexicans and blacks shop there. The store is bad, run down and poorly stocked, and there is a disproportionate number of blacks and hispanics shopping there, but I don’t point out the fact that this doesn’t imply a causal relationship.

After the store my aunt Sally calls my mom to tell her not to get coconut flakes because she has some already.

We go to the Post Oak Mall in College Station and I let my mom buy me some new shoes because it makes her happy, and because I need them and can’t afford any on my own. We eat lunch at a Mexican Restaurant in the mall, and my dad tells me once again that I need to get a wife and give him a grandson. I tell him that C might have something to say about that, and my mom changes the subject.

On Christmas Eve we always go to my grandma’s. When we were kids there’d be a mountain of gifts under the tree, and it felt like torture having to wait until everyone arrived before we could open them. This year the kids and presents were sparse. Now they are my little cousins’ children who can’t wait, and the adults are mostly bored and resigned and ready to go back to their own respective houses.

As per my usual, I sat in an inconspicuous corner and tried my best to blend in to the scenery. I wore a baseball hat that I only wear when I visit my family, and sat by a shelf of old photographs in my green, wooly sweater. My cousin Clint asked about C, and how much he likes Texas.

“He hates everything about it.” I said. Which is true. We were barely in Austin for a few weeks before we’d started planning where to move next.

I go back to the kitchen repeatedly for piece after piece of my mother’s homemade Christmas candy.

Before we leave my grandmother asks me to come sit on the couch with her. She asks me where I’m living now, and I tell her I’m in Austin.

“Austin?” She says, surprised.

We sit and talk a bit, and then she turns to me asks, “Who am I here with?”

I tell her, “Maw maw, this is your house. You live here.”

She smiles absently, and asks, “Am I here with Jean?” That’s my mom.

So I just nod.

When we leave she says to my mother, “I’m just bunking here, then?” My mom explains again that she’s home. That this is the house she and my grandfather built over thirty years before. But it doesn’t seem to register.

Back in my room in an uncomfortable twin bed, I cannot sleep. I toss and turn all night wishing he was beside me, unaccustomed to the absence of his heat, the sound of his breathing, the feel of his skin on my skin.

Christmas morning at 6 am the television in the living room blares to life and I hear the keen of gunshots from the old western my dad is watching. At 7:30 he comes in without knocking as I’m putting pants on because he wants to open presents.

I got my mom a book I knew she wanted, and my dad scratch off lottery tickets (He won $32.) I, in turn, got money, which is good, because without it I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, and socks and gift cards to Amazon, and the requisite candy.

We loaded up the car with a turkey, rolls, bottles of soda, deviled eggs and pies (my mom ended up not making a coconut one), and headed back to my grandmother’s.

“I like that sweater.” My mom says.

“C’s mom got it for me.” I tell her. Which is true, but I make a point of saying it so that she feels at least a little guilty for never having gotten C anything, and barely acknowledging his existence.

At my grandmother’s house, my aunt Linda, uncle Tommy and his wife Lori were trying to get my grandmother out of bed. She refused to get up, or put on clothes, or come eat breakfast. My mom made coffee and toast and brought them to her, but she refused them too, so my mom made oatmeal which she also wouldn’t touch.

She was talking at first, but then became incoherent, and then she stopped saying anything, closed her eyes and became unresponsive. After several minutes of her seeming to be semi-conscious, my aunt called 911. They were worried that she’d had a stroke.

We waited for the ambulance to come, hearing the siren wailing down the quiet, country road long before we saw the lights. Two paramedics came in, a man and a woman, wheeling a stretcher. They asked some questions about my grandmother’s health. When the woman paramedic attempted to find my grandmother’s heartbeat with her stethoscope, my grandmother perked up enough to ask, “Who are you, and why are you in my bedroom?”

Then she drifted out again, and became unresponsive. They loaded her up onto the stretcher as my mom struggled to put on her socks and shoes, and wheeled her out and into the waiting ambulance.

My mom and aunt and uncle Billy rode after them, while the rest of us piddled around my grandmother’s house, uncertain what to do. Other relatives arrived, and my aunts busied themselves with making dinner. Toddlers I didn’t recognize ran around the living room with shiny new Christmas toys.

My dad and I ate while we waited to hear something from my mom about how my grandmother was doing. My mom called while we were having dessert. My grandmother was talking again, and they were awaiting the results of a CT scan, though a mini stroke wouldn’t show up on it anyway, if that’s what she’d had.

My dad and I went back to my parent’s house. He watched some John Wayne movie, and I retreated to my old bedroom and watched episodes of Dr. Who. Later he was snoring on the couch, and woke up with a headache saying, “This drummer in my head must be a nigger, because he doesn’t miss a beat.” I remind myself that one day he’ll die and I’ll inherit his money.

My mom comes home. They’d released my grandmother from the hospital saying they could keep her for observation, but there’s so many sick people in the hospital, she’d be better off at home.

My parents drive me back to Austin in a gray, drizzle. We ride in silence. My dad had me re-set his password on his e-mail on his phone, and change his phone’s background image for him. I wonder what’s going to happen next year, or the year after, or whenever the time comes that my grandmother passes away what our family Christmases will be like. All of my cousins now have families of their own, children, spouses, extended families. But my parents only have me.

Because C and his little brother are at the movies, my parents have to drive me all the way to my apartment. One road leads all the way there. They only have to take the exit for South 1st, turn right onto South 1st, and my apartment is right there. It’s the easiest thing in the world, but my mom acts as if she’s having to navigate a T-65 X-wing star fighter to blow up the Death Star.

When we make it to my apartment, she proclaims, “I’m never coming to this hell hole again!” Referring to Austin.

We hug goodbye and wish one another merry Christmas. My dad doesn’t get out of the car. I walk up the stairs to my apartment wishing that I could just forget this Christmas. Without the childhood luster of excitement, the adult holiday is comprised entirely of stress and disappointment. I almost envy my grandmother, because of all of us, she’s the only one who isn’t going to remember Christmas this year.

Inside I eat some Christmas candy and turn on my computer, waiting for C and his brother to get home so that we can make a post Christmas feast, so that they can tell me what their parents sent them. So that we can sit down together and laugh, and quote bad movies. And then it dawns on me. I have my own extended family too. Maybe not the one my parents hoped for, or the one that I expected, but the one I love, and the one that loves me.