I’ve never been religious, but I had a dream once. It was night. The streets were damp. The rain was long gone, but its presence persisted in a trail behind me, reflecting the orange street lamps like tears on the ground. I was on a one-way street standing on a manhole cover, watching vapors rise to kiss the ether before fading forever from this existence. I couldn’t see the stars above in the city that I desperately wanted to be part of. A church was to my right and a synagogue to my left, and I felt no pull to either. I ducked my head and walked a straight line, embarrassed that I couldn’t feel God. But it was worse than that, I was gutted. Why couldn’t I feel him? I smeared the orange droplets as I continued my last mile, and something struck me softly, a snowflake at the end of my nose. I stopped for a moment. It melted away. I would trade my shoes for a reassurance on my soul.
The most frightening aspect of my dream, the thought that keeps me shaking even when I’m not consciously thinking about it is it wasn’t a dream. It was a prognosis. One day I would be that alone and the dream stops there, with tears on the streets.
In any other time, on any other world, if I was someone else Zoe Buchanan would have been the love of my life. She is, but she isn’t, and I think I’m hers. I haven’t met her yet, but I will when I’m ready to be Jack Remy.
The end was near. The final spins were becoming slower and wobblier, and I could feel my heart raging through my ribs. I couldn’t ignore it when it was there, right there in front of me. My jaw locked so tight my teeth felt like they would crack. My eyes spun with the sealed cola bottle. The black and caramel contents slammed into each other, colliding liquid and bubbles. The pressure built, puffing the bottle solid and tense. My jaw ached. They should never see the fear, because they prayed on the weak. Below their cardigans and designer fragrances, and A and F couture and trendy vocab, but most importantly, below their own insecurities, this was a world of vampires. They fed on fear in a desperate frenzy like piranhas to a scrap of meat. In the end the timorous became the bits wiped on their sleeve.
My bluff was transparent. At least that was obvious to me. They never caught on to how awkward I actually was. Holly lured me into this world, and for the last few years I fought the anxiety of being outted. Any second now I knew one of them would jump up and yell, ‘he’s different.’ It was inevitable, I knew that, and yet I still had no defense. I never fit in with the rest of them, but they accepted me. I surrendered to live in fear of the lie rather than be free and be hated. Below my skin, teeth, and muscles I was a self perpetuated mass of nerves, not cool. They thought I was cool, I guessed, but high school politics were just the tip of my downfall. So I beefed up my buffer and played along. Every part of my body ached.
My eyes grew three times larger as the bottle’s crawl was ending. A clam is a rock sea monster that can open and pinch your finger. Why would you poke it? I was intelligent enough not to ask. Instead, I sat back and maintained the lie. I watched intensely and fought the tremble brewing inside. I could be home right now. There was homework to do and lines to perfect. I haven’t haunted my favorite web sites today and there was plenty of TV to watch. I shouldn’t be here. I really wish I hadn’t come. Please don’t let this be panic. Sam. Kim. Mark. Tara. Brent. Holly. Kevin. I gulped.
“Kevin!” Ashley squealed when the bottle landed. I had to stop myself from jumping nine feet in the air. The bubbles fizzed in Kevin’s direction while the usual snickers billowed up as whenever this was the outcome. They tittered and squabbled. “They have to! The bottle has spoken!” She crossed her arms like a mini dictator. Fascist, I thought, unable to peel my sight from the carbonated doom. The verdict didn’t matter. Either out-come was a no-win situation. Holly stretched out on her hands and knees through the circle. She had no patience for their obnoxious, little games. Her back curved in a little. It was a show. She crafted her movements to exaggerate and emphasize her body while long rills of strawberry bleached hair skimmed down her shoulders. I wondered if anyone else recognized her act. Her fingers fondled the bottle neck as she shifted it ever so slightly to the right of Kevin. “Stacey.” She dared. Her words always smoldered like even vapors from a deep hollow. It leant her a false maturity. Holly’s sight fixed to me.
Ours was a complicated relationship. I’ve known Holly since before pre-school. We met on a playground. I was on the tire swing, alone. She offered me some of her peanut butter and banana sandwich. I said ‘no.’ She shoved me to the ground. She was pleased when I didn’t balk or tell on her. She looked down on me in the gravel. I wanted to tell on her. I wanted to cry, but I was too stunned and I’ve never had the chance to recoup. We’ve been inseparable ever since.
She kissed the air. I bit back on my jaw to stop a visible gulp from chugging down my throat. The crowd approved and Stacey jumped up. In an instant she stood over me and beamed down. The pads of my finger tips locked to the cement floor in Ashely’s basement in a desperate attempt to get a grip. My eyes slowly climbed her honey legs, past the tiny skirt, her exposed, flat stomach, and quickly to her over-eager eyes. She was excited. Good for her.
“Jack.” She reached down to help me up. I took a breath and pushed up. She led me beyond the sneering and giggles, up the stairs and down the corridor. I fumbled in the darkness, clipping a picture hanging on the wall with my shoulder. Stacey’s hands were clammy and nearly tugged my arm off. My legs pulled with hesitation the closer we crept and cold breath ran down my neck. The footsteps were my own. They were huge and loud and made my pulse thud erratically. The door closed behind us. A wobble in my knees shot through my whole body as the room’s light mellowed in the aperture of my eye. I immediately sat with Stacey following in suit. She eased up beside me, but her composure faltered as the situation began to take shape on her face. “Seven minutes,” she laughed nervously.
I leaned back on my elbows trying to seem smooth amid the sea of pillows. She surveyed our surroundings, devouring these last sinless moments among childhood trinkets, and soulless teddy bears, pink walls, and the anxiety she refused to acknowledge from me. She looked at me like they all did. I was King. This was supposed to be natural. Isn’t that strange? “Well?” I asked, shoving a stuffed dog from the bed.
“Right.” Her smile slipped away as her arms crossed over her stomach and hooked the edge of her shirt, but stopped. “I like you, Jack.” I grew more pensive when she sat beside me again. “Holly set us up.” I figured she was looking for a friendly response, but her words missed me. That gulp was determined to happen. She pushed up against me. It was rushed. I moved like I’d seen on TV. I should touch her. My hands found her back. Her lips moved with unfortunate clunk against my own. This was my first kiss, graceless. She pressed too hard. I could feel her teeth chomp from behind sealed lips.
Stacey looked at me. She looked for an approving vote of confidence. I offered her nothing more than a teddy bear stare. Her fingers worked down my sides which set a warning bell off in my head. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. She closed her eyes and slipped between our lips. She explored my mouth aimlessly rubbing my tongue and trying to coax me into her mouth to return the kiss. She pushed back further, triggering a cough from me. Stacey pulled away and looked to apologize. The gleam in her eye proved how sensitive she was, and how oblivious she was too. I stopped myself from wiping my mouth. I should feel something now, shouldn’t I? She was cute. A lot of guys liked her. Why can’t I get into it? She chewed her lip and stared at me. Maybe if I fake it it’ll come. I took a collective breath and thought of how an actor might handle this. My finger caressed her face and eased her chin to the perfect pitch. My lips gently sought hers. Her tongue braided mine again, but I set the pace this time. We were slow coming and heavy. She was lost in my sturdy arms. Her eyes closed to a natural crease. Her mouth was sluggish and uncomfortable, still unable to find the right combination of movements. Only five more minutes. We can do this.
I yawned. Crap! I couldn’t help it. It just came out in the middle of everything. Frigid horror locked on her face. She tore away. I couldn’t force interest. I tried. I concentrated, but her kiss lacked a certain charm. Her lip quivered, “Jack, do you like me?” Her eyes drowned in hurt glass beads.
I just wanted this to be over with. “Yes.” I lied. I looked away from her. She pulled her hair behind her ears. Her face turned pink and pinched. Damn it.
It was nearly one in the morning. Holly begged me to stay, but I was done after easing Stacey down from a cry for our last four allotted minutes. I was frustrated and I wanted to blame her. I wanted to blame Holly for setting us up. I wanted to blame the time constraint, or the whole sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Were they aware of the pressures that future generations would succumb to because of their narcotic crazed debauchery? How can any kid live up to that? In the end, however, I knew it was me, awkward, square peg me.
I rounded my block. My house was stamped out on a conveyer belt by a cookie cutter. Just add gum drops to complete the improved American dream. Orchard View Gated Community of Riverdale was a land where working class heroes need not apply. Each eighth of an acre of well manicured lawn was soft as plush and unboxed by the white picket fences of yesteryear. They were staked with ornamental trees and lighthouse shaped mailboxes. Little yellow signs repeated every few feet warning of insecticides and fertilizers. My house was exactly the same as the house besides it, and the house besides it. There were minute differences if you were attuned. There was a micro willow growing from the Smiths’ lawn, and a cherry tree from the Daringer’s. My house sported a fancy Dogwood that stretched out over a large, flat rock. I used to spend hours sprawled under that tree naming shapes in the clouds and thinking about someday. I was a kid then. I don’t have time in my life for bunnies in the sky. I just want to get to bed. Besides, it’s too dark for clouds now anyhow.
The house was dark, which meant mom and dad were asleep, which was a good thing. I climbed the familiar branches of the tree that led to my bedroom window. I took one last peak at the night and smiled. A purple sail, or perhaps it was an ice cream cone, was crossing the moon. I eased in soundlessly, like so many times before. My pulse had steadied through the two mile walk from Ashley’s, but I felt a special wave of calm as my eyes adjusted to the familiar sanctuary. An unplanned sigh of content and survivorship puffed out, releasing any linger animosity the outside world had impressed upon me. All monsters yielded to my four walls. Nothing could get me here. I flopped on my bed for some much deserved rest, but was greeted with a pained squeal.
“God damn it, Maddy.” I jumped away. My two year old sister, Madeline was waiting for me. She recovered quickly and pulled her clumpy, stuffed hippo to her face. She was the happiest accident my parents ever made.
“Dak.” She giggled.
“Jack.” I corrected her.
I rolled my eyes and withheld a smirk. “Mom’s been getting to you, hasn’t she?” I ruffled her curls. She didn’t know how to answer, but I knew it was true. Aaron was what mom called me. I sat beside her. “Sorry for crushing you.” She hugged my side. I put my arm around her and smiled. As far as I was concerned, Maddy was the only girl I loved.
Maddy pointed up. “Owl.” I lazed back on my pillow, tucking my hands behind my head. A poster was fastened to the ceiling above us. It was from a play I’d seen in England. It starred my favorite actor. Maddy and I locked every detail to memory for a moment. She merely looked up, but I absorbed. He had a very inviting look about him and the light that reflected in his eyes was broken, intense, and sad. When I was younger I thought he made his eyes that way and I practiced, trying to capture that melancholy guilt. I tried to peg that honesty, but realized with age it was a lighting trick.
“Dun-can Mc-Dow-ell.” I annunciated.
“Owl.” I admitted defeat and patted her head. “Maddy, go to bed.” She scowled and climbed down, leaving Mr. Hippo behind. I knew this game. She left the bait and padded back to her room.
“Dak, Mr. Hippo.” She warned through the wall. Mr. and Hippo were the only words she spoke that remotely resembled English. I scooped up the animal to return it. I would tuck her in and kiss her head, that’s it. I wouldn’t let her start giggling, or pull out her toys, or anything that would keep me from sleeping another moment.
“I did a fine job tonight.” I muttered to myself upon returning to bed. I looked up to the poster from Romeo and Juliet and thought of Stacey. She was a pawn. Holly was a puppet master, manipulating people to their devise. Their devastation was her ultimate delight. I’m sure she had the most fantastic reaction to Stacey’s tears. My lips pressed together. I was frustrated with myself too. Why didn’t I stop it? Why couldn’t I just play along? What the hell’s wrong with me? She was right there. She wanted me. I couldn’t focus on sexy curves. I kept thinking about unsavory metaphors for girl’s anatomy. I rubbed my eyes and tried to banish the thought. I looked back up at Duncan McDowell. I’ve read about him on the web loads of times. I thought about all those lucky girls that kissed those lips, and had that body, then ran straight to the paparazzi. I hate Holly. I rolled over and dwelled on that thought. I dwelled on it until I fell asleep and dreamt about Romeo.