A lunar eclipse happened that night, common yet divine. When those who remembered to look up saw it they felt as though they should feel more, but they also felt as though they've seen it before. The place on Earth closest to the eclipse was Midtown in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The humidity placated a throng of druggies and drunks and queers that that street welcomed with equal passivity.
Bachelorettes would go there in June, Pride, and leave disappointed. Godly blonde women would go looking to leave with a story but reluctantly left with a sense that depression wasn't a Christian virtue after all.
For Tommy the night was an initiation. It was the night after his 21st birthday, which had been on a Thursday. He wore a mint, pressed, buttoned down shirt and tan shorts. Although he rolled the sleeves up he still felt overdressed. Or dressed in a way that seemed as if it was unlikely he would receive attention. Not that he was looking for it, he reminded himself.
Maurice held his hand. Tommy Tommy Tommy, Maurice thought and then they approached Beat.
Maurice, a tall and beautiful and commanding man left his shirt unbuttoned and flirted with the bouncer, who grabbed his ass and let him in for free. Maurice, who hadn't let go of Tommy's hand, pulled him past the bouncer before he could grab at Tommy too.
"What do you want to drink?" Maurice said over the beat.
"I don't know!"
"A margarita," Tommy said.
Maurice flashed a smile full of nice white teeth and pulled him to the bar.
"It's his 21st!"
The bartender, a handsome grey man with a high falsetto voice leaned across the glittery counter.
"Yeah? Happy 21st sweetheart. This is on me."
A shot with whipped cream on the top was passed toward Tommy. It went down smooth, and his stomach became warm.
"That was good, thanks."
"We take care of our own here."
"I'm getting him a margarita too," Maurice said, passing a crumpled five-dollar bill to the bartender.
Beat beat beading sweat collected on his chest, Tommy danced among the other gay locals to the pounding, beating music, feeling as though he was a part of something much larger than himself, even if the men around him were too drunk and drugged to feel the same way. The club pulsated with a kaleidoscope of personalities and egos that were waging a violently sexual yet quiet war against each other. But Tommy was enjoying himself, and by extension so was Maurice.
Beat beat beta men with pursed lips would nurse drinks against their flabby breasts and think I hate myself I hate myself and look at Tommy who did not appear to be looking at anything and think I hate him too.
"What do you think?" Maurice said, yelled above the beats.
"I have to pee!" Tommy said.
Maurice laughed, a deep laugh that seemed as though he had been holding it in for a long time, waiting for the right moment to release it.
"I meant what do you think about Beat? Are you having fun?"
"Yeah! I still have to pee. Where's the bathroom?"
Maurice put his hand on Tommy's shoulder and pointed, his hand resting perhaps a beat too long. Tommy waded through the crowd and opened the door into a dimly lit bathroom.
After he peed, when he went to the sink to wash his hands, a heavy man with a heavy accent said, "What are you here for?"
The man smiled and winked and then grabbed his own crotch.
“What?” Tommy said again, then realized, then hurried out of the bathroom. He found Maurice again, who handed him a dollar bill.
“Give this to him,” Maurice said, thinking, Tommy, Tommy imagining Tommy and him and him and Tommy.
The dancer was on a raised platform, a young man in a skimpy Speedo, his flat chest sweaty and his bare stomach bound with muscle. He noticed Tommy approaching and bent down.
“Put it wherever you like sweetheart,” he said.
There wasn’t much choice, so Tommy delicately lifted the elastic band of the Speedo and placed the dollar bill halfway in. He realized with detachment that he was attracted to this person, and for a brief moment he became aware of the alien human fixation on sex, sexuality, of wanting to have sex with a person. He blushed.
“Thank you cutie. How old are you?”
“You’re so young.”
He knew what would happen if he stayed around this person for much longer, so he touched the dancer on the shoulder, briefly but enough to feel his skin and imagine, then went back to Maurice.
“You just tipped your first stripper!” Tommy laughed. “He’s so hot. I’m obsessed with him.”
“It was alright. It’s sort of stupid I don’t know,” Tommy said.
With every beat and beat and beat the music faded into the sonorous obscurity that was akin to the sound of a waterfall, of standing directly next to a great waterfall, so after a while it became so loud you stopped hearing it. That yelling as loud as you could was the standard. That in any other circumstance yelling as loud as you could would violate whatever laws govern all our interactions with other people. But that night and every other night in Beat the drugged and drunked and queered population of Atlanta, Georgia would all scream at each other not to the beat of the music but in spite of it, not really knowing why they were screaming but screaming nonetheless.
The song transitioned into another one, conveniently of the same beat. Tommy was a good dancer, and Maurice was watching him. Tommy, he thought. His name was so stupidly appropriate for who he was it made Maurice want to scream, which he certainly could have done without anyone noticing. Maurice did scream.
Beat beat beat beat bang beat beat bang beat bang beat bang beat beantg beantg the shots became so harmonized with the song that it went unnoticed at first, people hearing it with the same unhearing one becomes accustomed to standing underneath a waterfall, not feeling the weight of the water yourself but knowing the weight of it is right behind you.
Maurice chose to move in front of Tommy like a planet chooses to continue along its orbit, in a moment that became so absurdly prolonged that the moth-eaten fabric of space and time ripped and in its wake left a sense that everything is held together only by a measly bunch of frayed and exhausted threads. And in a series of events that proved Newton’s first law, like an asteroid colliding into a distant moon and making no sound as it does so and the moon then floating through empty space until it collides into something else, Maurice flew into Tommy and Tommy into the speaker and the speaker falling on top of them both until, once on the floor, all movement stopped. All that was left was the beat beat beat of the music and the vibrations like those you would feel after an earthquake.
His breath was knocked out of him and his ears rang with trauma. His own heartbeat beating so heartbreakingly loud he wonder if the pressure of Maurice and the speaker would break his heart. And like in the final stage of the eclipse that Midtown was so close to that night, darkness crept in through his periphery and clouded over his vision until the beating music that lay on top of him lulled him to sleep.
Maurice was a musician and good one at that. He was so fascinated with music he could find it everywhere. He would try to guess the note in which his lovers moaned and after they left he would pull out his phone and check on an app to see if he was right, holding the microphone to his mouth and humming.
He first saw Tommy when Tommy was 18, and it wasn’t love at first sight exactly, but he knew he would know him soon. Maurice was a senior and Tommy a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. They first met because Maurice wanted them to. He would later tell Tommy:
“I saw you around campus and I wanted to know what you were up to. You seemed like you were up to something.”
Whether Tommy was up to something neither of them ever found out. They became good friends. Maurice was in love with Tommy, sure, but he knew Tommy did not feel the same way and the only thing that hurts more than unrequited love is when the person you’re in love with knows you’re in love with them. Well, Tommy did know, and the nicest thing he ever did for Maurice was not tell him he knew.
Tommy woke up in the Atlanta Medical Center. His mother looked furious.
“Are you in pain?” she asked.
“Oh.” He realized he was in pain. “Yes.”
She looked as taut and surly as an evangelical.
“I’ll get a doctor.”
She paused at the foot of the hospital bed and looked down at him, barely missing his line of vision like a dart just barely outside the bull’s-eye.
“Tom.” She let his name fill the air for a moment. “I want to shake you, ask you why you do it, ask you why, why you do it.”
“Do what? What time is it?”
“I love you. I’m so sorry,” and she began to cry.
“Can you believe they brought him here too? With the rest of you. They came by and said so, but not to worry because he’s handcuffed to the bed or something. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Well, none of it makes much sense to me. I imagine this will be one of those moments that I’ll think about for the rest of my life, and it’ll mark a change in me. I’ll think of my life as before and after.” She paused. “Maybe it makes more sense than I give it credit for.”
“Where is Maurice?”
She stopped talking and made eye contact with him and said, “He’s just down the hall,” and he knew she was lying.
Tommy didn’t cry but a memory came to him of Maurice and him standing outside of Maurice’s house in the city and Maurice saying, “I want to kiss you.” It had just started snowing and Tommy wanted to go outside and Maurice went with him.
Tommy knew that the next few moments would determine their friendship and if it would continue so he said:
“Are you drunk?” Please say you are please please please
“No.” He grabbed Tommy’s hand lightly enough so that if Tommy wanted to pull away he could but firm enough that he’d have to pull away.
“It was a joke.”
Tommy hugged him and as the snow fell around them he thought about the image of a comet passing by overhead and why comets were destined to leave behind that trail. Maybe if Maurice and Tommy had not gone to Beat that night then Maurice would have to admit it wasn’t a joke and Tommy would have to admit it too and they would never have spoken again away. But that wouldn’t have happened, No, Tommy thought. It wouldn’t have. Maurice enjoyed loving too much and Tommy enjoyed being loved too much, much like a full moon enjoys being up in the sky where no one can touch it but no one can avoid looking at it.
Maurice, Tommy thought, Maurice Maurice Maurice. Tommy watched his mother walk out of the hospital room then he looked outside and saw the lunar eclipse wash from the oil painted horizon and knew that although there was sure to be another one, he’d never get quite as close and it would never quite be in the same position in the sky.
It's Still Tom's Story
I sat behind Tom on the bus to Chicago for a school journalism trip my sophomore year of high school. He was a freshman, but really never acted like it. He was dating Peyton, this senior soccer player. She had these perfect caramel-colored freckles on her cheeks that most looked fake when you saw them up close. She never talked to me.
He brought his guitar along and would play it on the way from our hotel to the convention center. I’d press my forehead against the scratchy blue and pink fabric of his seat, close my eyes, and imagine his soulful expression, the easy touch of his fingers against the fret board that easily convinced you to ignore his premature, untrained voice. Peyton would sit there beside him, briefly soaking in the attention radiating from all of us, the mere observers of their seemingly untouchable existence. After a verse and a chorus or two she would direct her focus back at her phone, disinterested in pretending to care any longer. He later told me she raped him on a bathroom floor at a Christmas party that year. I’m pretty sure that was his first time.
I never really spoke to Tom until this dumb music event my senior year. My first boyfriend, this skinny state school college guy named Mitchell who wouldn’t even eat me out had broken up with me via text about a month before. It sounds pretty fucking stupid now, but I was pretty bummed out at the time. I got tipsy with my friend Michaela before I went. There were twice as many parents than there were students around. God, I felt so embarrassed afterward but looking back, I don’t even know why. Everyone was acting just as loud and annoying as I was.
The three or four shots of Fireball in my system were more than enough to leave my 18-year-old self rebellious and attention-seeking. Tom was sitting on couch opposite to me, and I faintly heard him saying something about Courtney Love. I asked (probably a little too loudly) for him to speak up.
“What? Oh I was just saying how 90’s era Courtney was just straight up hot. Something about how smeared and messy she always looked. It’s intriguing to me.”
I probably go to the bathroom every hour I’m out to make sure my clothes and makeup still look pristine. I cleared my throat. “Yeah. She was definitely a grunge icon. It’s kind of a messy music movement, if you think about it.” I was trying really hard.
He looked over at me for the first time. He has these stupid grayish blue eyes that look like they were cut straight out of a vampire romance novel in the “What’s New: Young Adult” bookstore section, and pasted right into his deep, sleepy sockets. His brow furrowed in thought, darkening and transforming his face into an expression still so easily conjurable to my mind it pisses me off. I guess the rest of him is fairly average looking, but his expressions are more than enough to suck anyone in. “If you’re into grunge, you should check out The Crow sometime. Pretty insane film. One of my favorites.”
I had heard him talk about that movie a few times before, but in that moment it felt like a recommendation specially designed for me, a private agreement just between us. It was a good enough excuse to message him on twitter later. No matter how much more he knew about music or films than I did, I was older than him. I knew I had the upper hand.
I was out of town for a few weeks after the party, so we talked a lot over text before we ever really hung out. We talked about our favorite records, movies, his prog rock band, his devout anarchism, his narcissistic mother, his imprisoned father… he was multifaceted in a way I had never encountered in my age group. I was happy to listen to him talk about his shitty past and advanced tastes. There were times when he would share something so personal the moment felt almost palpable, delicate and vulnerable in my hand. He made me feel so bland, so uninteresting.
One morning I woke up two a slurring string of 2 a.m. drunk texts:
hey jsyk i think your fuckn great ok
but not just like great bt like
I really like you
Oh shit i forgot you're like tall. how tall r you? shit i hpoe youre not taller thn me
fuck we havent even hung out wtf a m i saying
hope you sleep good. i bet you look cute .
I could tell he was embarrassed the next day but it only made me grin. It was endearing. And I knew I was in control.
When I got back we went and got coffee, then went to his house to watch The Crow. From what I paid attention to, it wasn’t that great. I didn’t know how to talk to him in real life, so I gave him head instead. I could faintly hear his parents talking about new kitchen countertops in the next room. He walked me out to my car after it was over.
After that we were dating, I suppose. I don't think I really loved him until November, when he said it to me first. It was the same night he took Adderall and spilled about all his mental disorders and his drinking and pills. That night, something inside of me knew I was meant to be in his life at that moment. I knew I was meant to be his.
I think Tom fixated on me the way he would have fixated on his mother if she would have been…really a mom to him. Some Freudian bullshit or whatever. He was pleading for me to be there. He needed me.
The Tom at the beginning…that was my Tom. Sweet and honest and vulnerable.
On Christmas Day, he took me to this cheap Chinese buffet and we tried all 13 kinds of their shitty sushi, rating each of them 1-10 like we were some Food Network feature. When he’d forget to eat, I’d bring him Walgreens groceries of Easymac or instant oatmeal and we’d fuck in the back of my car. I’d skip class to hold his hair when he drank too much before school, crying and throwing up in the boy’s bathroom toilet. I know it was messy and fucked up. But at least it was real. Well, I guess who knows if it was? We were probably still performing some sad, stupid cliche.
I don’t know if there’s an exact time when sick people start getting bad. With physical illness, something has to snap or stop working, or some bacteria or virus enters your system and fucks with your body. Maybe mental viruses are stress or self-doubt or bad habits. Maybe something really does snap. Maybe one day you’re a little too clingy or a little too critical and they just can’t take it anymore. I suppose I’ll never know.
I do know that sometime in March Tom got bad, and in April he got worse. He came to school less and slept more, stopped taking his meds and drank more, talked less and yelled more. I could watch the little lines of dark, freshly scabbed cuts flex along the curve of his bicep, marching along in rhythm as he moved on top of me. I watched the marred infantry slowly grow in size as his texts grew more sparse, 90% half-hearted ok’s and sorry’s.
How do you ask a depressed person to pay attention to you when they can hardly suppress the urge to blow their brains out? How can you say “Maybe you start coming back to newspaper meetings” or “Can you please try to be less rude to my parents so they’ll stop lecturing me” or “I really don’t feel like having sex today because I feel like my body is the only part of me that can make you feel any better now?”
You don’t. You somehow morph into a needless, passive being, letting them come to you when they need you, waking up every morning with the hope they’re finally okay and will start giving back again. But no one can make themselves needless.
March is when I began to spend my weekends in my room, binge watching tv and constantly refreshing every social media platform available to me. My mom stormed in one day after school as I was tossing my backpack and jacket to the pizza box and Jimmy John’s wrapper-covered floor. Her demanding presence shrunk the room down to half its size.
“You room is disgusting. Why don’t you clean it and go out this weekend with someone?"
I paused, thinking.
“Because I don’t have any friends,” I replied. I didn’t realize how obvious this was to me until I said it out loud.
“Don’t talk crap like that. Of course you do. What about Michaela and Troy and Natalie? And your journalism friends?”
I sighed. “I’ve been a shitty friend to Michaela lately and stopped texting her back. I don’t really like Troy anymore. Tom thinks he’s too dogmatic. And Tom says Natalie thinks I’m annoying now. I don't really feel like hanging out with any people on Newspaper. I guess Tom is really the only person I hang out with, but he's busy this weekend.”
Tom had started to drink with the football players on the weekends. They were all absolutely mesmerized by the amount Tom could consume. They’d give him free can after can, bottle after bottle. I didn’t go to those parties. I couldn’t stomach the show.
At a party in April Tom bought 40 dollars worth of Klonopin with his gas money for the month. It took taking four of them and for him to drive to my house and stumble into my room at 3 in the morning, hair plastered to his forehead, his Bauhaus t-shirt on backwards. It took four k-pins for him to confess to me that he had groped a girl at Evan’s party last weekend. You know, the really crazy one, the one where the bass was so fucking loud and everyone was dancing and no one was really thinking and someone had given him tequila and you know I’m not myself when I drink tequila.
It took four k-pins for him to apologize to me for the way he had been acting, to say that he had been such a shitty boyfriend and that I didn’t deserve anything close to that. That he wanted to spend his life with me. That was going to try harder from now on. He promised. I cried and he held my head in his lap, tracing his finger down the bridge of my nose over and over until I could stop myself from shaking.
It took until a week after the k-pins ran out for my phone to light up with the words I think we should see other people.
I called him three times before he answered. I heard him breath a sigh before rasping out a numb “hello.”
I can maybe recall around 15 seconds of that phone call. There are a few phrases I wish I could forget, like I can’t be what you want right now and I can’t help wanting to have sex with other people and we’ll never be happy if I don’t do this. I do remember the feeling of my quivering elbows pressing against the bathroom floor for stability. The taste of my tears mixing with the snot dribbling onto my lips. I don’t remember how many times I had to put the phone down and dry heave over the sink. I don’t remember falling asleep on the floor.
I remember the feeling of waking up empty. Empty of myself and anyone else.
Last Friday I heard Tom was going to be at this restaurant bar called Patton Alley for a music gig or something. I convinced myself that I was going for me. I had never been before and who knew what time he would get there, anyway? The interior was foggy and hot. This guy named Jacob ended up buying me a beer. He dressed like a slightly updated version of one of the seniors in Dazed & Confused. I’m gluten intolerant and underage, but I drank it anyway. He told me he worked at a health supplement store, but he only worked out maybe twice a year. I thought that was pretty cute. I made sure Tom wasn’t going to show up before we left.
On the car ride from the bar to his apartment, he played music off his Spotify playlist, never letting a song go on for more than a minute or so. He started with safe indie-pop that came out within the year, moving to melodic rap, eventually settling on some overthought R&B. He bombarded me with nervous questions to fill the nonexistent silence.
“So…what kind of music are you into?”
I watched the yellow lines of the poorly-paved road weave and snake as we rattled along. “Nothing, really. I just listen to whatever other people like.”
What Tom likes.
“Oh. Well are you into this? I’ll make you a playlist if you want.”
“You can if you want.”
I hadn’t been listening to it.
Later when we were lying down on his couch, he asked me if he could take my dress off. I didn’t sound like a question then. It was only the start of the inevitable chain reaction where he’ll take my dress off and we will have sex until he orgasms and then I’ll go home and go to bed. Sex is nice because you have to concentrate on making exactly the right sounds or positioning your body in the perfect place or what you have to pick up at Hyvee tomorrow. It generates chemical reactions in your body that distract from your body’s inability to do anything but generate chemical reactions.
To distract from the chemicals still reacting to things or people who are no longer there, and never will be again.
Save The Space
The forecast had called for a heavy downpour. Though the storm was taking its sweet time getting to us, its promise still drove away the customers, making for a slow and unrelenting afternoon at Zak’s Music Store. When I’m bored at work, I tend to stare at the glass-plated mosaic of CD covers that make up the checkout counter to keep myself from compulsively checking my phone. Since business was slow, I didn’t abide by this technique quite as much.
“Hey, no phones at the register, Rae,” my coworker A.D. called to me, catching me at a moment of weakness. As if he were above me in rank. As if he had worked at this music store longer than me. As if I hadn’t seen him do the exact same thing on the clock.
My impulse was to tell him to fuck off, but I had to maintain at least a shred of professionalism. Unlike him, who came to work dressed like a cross between a misplaced punk rocker and a junior high schooler with existential crisis. I think he might be in his twenties. Just because the boss says we can dress in our own styles doesn’t mean he has to look like walking Hot Topic propaganda.
“I’m just checking to make sure my mom didn’t text me,” I snapped. A lame excuse. “Don’t you have parents?”
He jerked his head back and scoffed. “What the hell does that have to do with texting at work?”
This wasn’t the first time he’d redirected a personal question like that. I hadn’t even meant to ask him one this time, and he’d still deflected it.
“If you did maybe you’d understand why sometimes you gotta check your damn phone at work to make sure your mom isn’t blowing it up,” I said.
“Oh-kay,” he said. “Whatever, man.” He glanced across the room at the Pink Floyd wall clock. “Oh, look at the time. Time for me to pick the music.”
The employees got to choose what music played in the store, but the rule was, we had to share the space, dividing the DJ slots up equally between whomever was working that day (the boss not included). Today, it was just A.D. and I, as per usual on Thursdays.
I’d been playing artists like Andy Grammar and Ellie Goulding for most of the afternoon, so I knew A.D. was dying to change it. He was more of a Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys kind of guy, which I couldn’t find any musical aesthetic in, and believe me, I’d tried.
There was a moment of static as Twenty One Pilot’s “Stressed Out” ended (oh so apropos) and then his music began, something angry and uncouth, maybe Misfits or The Offspring. I braced myself for three and a half hours of auditory pain.
“Do you ever listen to anything, I don’t know, happy?” I asked him about half an hour in. The storm had just broken loose, releasing its pressurized fury on the windowpanes, loud like bullets on the roof, angry and static-charged like A.D.’s music. “Does that emotion register with you?”
He smiled, his high cheekbones lifting to his black-rimmed eyes. “Oh, Rae, you poor, naïve little conformist.”
“Cut the crap, A.D. You know not everyone likes this stuff, right?”
“Not everyone likes your stuff, either, you know. It’s all a matter of opinion.”
“Most people would agree with me, though. You’re just plain weird, you know that?”
“I do, yes, I do. Thank you.”
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
“But I take it as one.” He smiled and drummed the counter.
I couldn’t let him have the last word. “You’re not cool, you know. You’re just a big wannabe who disappoints his parents.”
I watched his expression drop quickly from cocky nonchalance to insulted shock, a genuine shock, not the usual dismissive, “whatever, kiss my ass” kind of shock he usually expressed when I said something rude. I didn’t know what made this comment so effective, but his silence told me I’d hit a nerve. Hell, I even knew it was too harsh before I’d said it. But I didn’t think he’d take it personally—he was so dismissive about everything else.
“Ouch,” he said, trying to play it off. But he couldn’t sound sarcastic. He turned and walked away, and wouldn’t look at me. I couldn’t look at him either, with his electric green hair that was kind of a mohawk, kind of not, and his Rancid t-shirt, and his eyeliner, and his distressed denim jacket covered in ambiguous patches. I didn’t understand what he was trying to prove by dressing like he did, but it seemed more like an act than an expression of individuality. I still wasn’t sure if he was for real. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the guilt. Come on, Rae, he’ll get over it. He’s a big boy. He’s bound to have heard worse.
It was about ten minutes later when our boss, Jimmy, called us both to the front counter and said, “Well, guys, this weather is looking pretty nasty. I don’t want any of us stranded here… since business is slow, I say we close the shop early and get the hell outta here. It’s already pretty dark, but what do you think?”
My prayers are answered, I thought as both of us agreed without hesitation.
It was a shotgun sprint to our vehicles, a feeble attempt to keep ourselves somewhat dry. I sat in the safety of my car and checked my phone while I waited for the space to heat up and the windows to defog. Nothing much: a few Instagram updates, a Snapchat, a friend who commented on a Facebook post. None of them were the notification I wanted. Not even so much as a text from either of my parents to make sure I was still alive. Typical.
I threw the phone down and started backing out, but almost jumped when I saw that A.D.’s car was still in the parking lot, a few spaces down from me. I could barely see in the pouring rain, but he was evidently still in the car, leaning towards the steering wheel. I could hear the engine stalling.
Is his car not starting? I leaned back in the seat. Dammit. Should I say something? God, I don’t wanna say something. It’s raining so hard, I could just back out at pretend I don’t see him… shit, I’ll feel like such a bitch if I do that…
I reluctantly honked my horn to try to get his attention. I saw his door open and close, and then watched him run to my car and tug at the door, which I had forgotten to unlock. Once I hit the button, he slid inside with the agility of a river otter, slamming the door shut and leaning back against the seat.
“Fuck,” he said. “Piece of shit car, fucking figures. Perfect. Just perfect.” He put his hands to his face and rubbed his already-smeared eyeliner onto his palms. He wiped them on his jeans. “Thank you, by the way.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “That really sucks.”
“I hate to ask this from you, but can you give me a ride?”
Just what I’d feared. “Yeah. I can. Where do you live?”
It was the opposite direction from my apartment, not terribly far, but still out of the way.
I crept my way onto the main road and began the slow, nerve-wracking journey to A.D.’s apartment. It was bad enough having to get myself home in the rain; now I had to worry about navigating somewhere relatively unfamiliar. I gripped the steering wheel and tried not to think about it.
“This is intense,” A.D. said. “God, can you see anything? I can’t.”
“I know where I’m going,” I said.
“I think it’s flash-flooding.”
“Could you just do me a favor and not talk.”
He was right, though; it was getting worse by the minute. The water ran in rivets through the street, maybe half an inch but obviously still rising. I started to feel my tires struggling to tread through it. I was creeping along the highway at thirty-five miles an hour. Suddenly, I started feeling like I might hydroplane, and in half-panic I pulled over on the side of the road and tried to slow my breathing down.
“It’s okay, you weren’t even slipping that bad,” said A.D., his voice soft and calm.
“This is bad,” I said, embarrassed.
“Yeah, this is fuck’n bullshit,” he replied.
“A.D., I honestly don’t know if I can make it there,” I said.
“Well, we have a few options. Either you stay pulled over and we wait, or you continue to drive slow and I direct you to a place that’s closer than mine, and we both crash there. It’s kind of a last resort, but either way I don’t think either of us are getting home anytime soon.”
“Whose place is it?” I asked.
He paused. “My mom’s.”
A.D.’s mother! I could hardly imagine. “How far is it?”
“Maybe a mile from here. Just take the next exit, take a right, and it leads straight to the neighborhoods behind the high school.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s try that.”
“If you need me to drive, I will.”
“No,” I said, because I still had some pride. “I can handle it.”
He tried to call her ahead of time to tell her we were coming, but cell service was next to null in this crazy weather. Guess it would have to be a surprise visit. How would she react to that?
Inch by inch, we made it to A.D.’s mom’s house, a modest cottage-style home in what I believed was an older, woodsier neighborhood. We rushed up the driveway to the door, our clothes and shoes instantly taking on water. Neither of us had dressed for the weather. He pounded on the door in desperation, and a few moments later a petite, middle-aged woman in a wool cardigan opened the door and gaped at us. Her eyes were bright and her face looked like an older Audrey Hepburn’s.
“Hey, Ma, I tried to call you, but—”
“Arty! Oh my God! Get in, get in, both of you.” She had a smoker’s voice, but not the kind that was too far gone to be pleasant. She stood aside to let us into the foyer, a small patch of linoleum tile with a faded welcome mat that said, “Welcome to Paradise.” She shut the door and turned down the hallway to the immediate right, saying, “I’ll get some towels, just keep your wet clothes on the linoleum when you take them off.”
Wait, like, we’re stripping? I looked over at A.D.—or Arty, apparently?—who had already peeled off his shoes, socks, and jacket, and was working on his pants. I blushed like a hot stove and managed to get my shoes and socks off before A.D.’s mom came back. At that point, he was in a t-shirt and underwear and I was looking around at the room.
“Arthur, what the fuck?” his mom said, catching me off guard. “You couldn’t wait five seconds?”
“My limbs were numb,” he said, catching the towel she threw at him. “Ow!”
“That didn’t hurt.” She turned to me and smiled as she handed me a towel. “You’ll have to learn to live with his quirks. He thinks he can make himself at home anywhere.” A.D. scowled, smirking. “I’m Katherine, by the way, his mother.”
I smiled and shook her outstretched hand, thin and boney, but not in an arthritic way. “Nice to meet you.”
“I have to say—and don’t take this the wrong way—that you’re by far prettiest girl he’s ever brought home.”
That’s when I got it. I laughed as easily as I could and said, “Oh, no, no, we’re not—I’m not his girlfriend. We work together.”
“This is Rae, Mom,” A.D. supplied, because I was too incompetent to tell her my name.
Her eyes went wide and her mouth made an “O” as she said, “Ohhh, I got it, I got it. You’re Rae.”
My skin crawled with the realization that the only way she could say that is if I were a topic of conversation between mother and son… and that was not a pleasant notion in the slightest.
“A.D. talks about work quite a bit,” she explained. “He’s told me about his coworkers, and your guys’ quirky boss and all that.”
“He let us go home early because of the storm,” A.D. explained. “And my shit car wouldn’t start so Rae offered to give me a ride, but we couldn’t make it to my or her apartment. So is it okay if we crash here ‘til the storm dies down?”
“Of course!” she exclaimed, her voice squeaking. “No one should be out in this shitty weather. Here, Rae, hon, the bathroom is right down the hall; I’ll go find you some dry clothes.”
“Thank you,” I said, and disrobed once I was actually behind closed doors. Katherine brought me sweat pants and a t-shirt… of A.D.’s, and told me that she figured I wouldn’t want to borrow underwear, which was correct. I hung my wet clothes over the side of the bathtub and joined A.D. in the living room, now dressed in a similar ensemble. He had apparently washed his face, because the eyeliner was nothing more than faint, gray smears under his eyes, and his green hair now fell down over his ears and forehead in a way that made him look younger. He sat on the two-seater couch, so I took the armchair to its left.
His mom was in the kitchen and asked if I wanted any soup/tea/hot chocolate.
“Tea sounds nice,” I said, wrapping my arms around myself.
“Here,” A.D. said, getting up and grabbing the Indian blanket that hung over the back of the couch. “You look cold. It’s not itchy, actually. It’s really warm.”
I graciously took it.
“I gotta admit,” Katherine said from the kitchen, “I’m a little too happy to have you kids here; it’s nice to have someone to take care of, and none of my kids have grandchildren yet, so, Arty’s still the baby. The big, loud, pierced-and-tattooed baby.” She gave him a smile that said this was in good humor. “I was worried about you, too, because I know how shitty that car is. So thank you, Rae, for giving him a ride.”
“Yes, thank you, Rae,” A.D. said over his shoulder.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and got up to retrieve my phone from my purse, which I’d left sitting by the door. No messages, even though it said I had service. I took it with me back to my seat and tried to act casual. I felt like an intruder, even though there was nothing to suggest I wasn’t welcome. No, I knew exactly why: because there was nothing to suggest A.D. was okay with me being here. In his mother’s house. Wearing his old clothes. It was just a plain, black t-shirt and grey sweats. They actually fit me pretty well, not because I was fat, but because A.D. was thin.
Katherine brought me the tea and A.D. some soup and sat next to him on the couch, asking us how bad the roads were and whether or not there were any accidents. Then, she directed her attention towards me, and I braced myself for well-meaning questions.
“How old are you, Rae?” she asked.
“Oh, great! I was going to offer you both some rum to warm your organs but I didn’t want to get you in trouble.”
“No, no—yeah, I’m not underage,” I said.
She tilted her chin and said, “Of course I could also get myself in trouble too, if you were.” She chuckled. “That’s why I always told the kids, ‘If you’re gonna drink at home, do it when I’m not around. Then I’m not responsible.’ Okay, that’s really backwards logic, but it was also mostly a joke. Mostly.” She elbowed her son and got up to pour us a drink.
A.D. leaned towards me and said, “She used to be an alcoholic,” as if it were the most natural statement in the world.
I wasn’t sure how to react to that. “Oh,” I said. “You could never tell.”
He smirked, and I checked my phone again to break the conversation. Katherine came back over and placed two tall shot glasses of rum on the coffee table. I sipped the rum shot like a loser, meanwhile A.D. took it all in one go, and Katherine resumed what she’d been doing before we’d showed up on her doorstep: watching re-runs of The Walking Dead on TV, which we were welcome to stay for. The cable connection had gotten progressively crappier thanks to the storm, but the local news station managed to inform us that there was a flash flood warning in effect until 3 a.m. Which meant we were stuck here. That I was stuck here. I drank my rum a little faster.
Once the connection was too bad for us to watch TV, she switched it off and lit a cigarette, turning on the small air purifier that sat next to the ashtray on the coffee table as she did so. So that’s why the room didn’t smell like smoke. Which seemed like a very conscientious thing to do, especially since it was obvious she lived alone and had no one to impress. I vaguely wondered where his dad was.
“You live close by, Rae?” she asked.
“Yeah, not too far, just a few miles down the highway.” She spoke so casually to A.D. and myself, my measured speech felt hot and heavy on my tongue.
“Me and a few roommates,” I replied. “I go to Maryville.”
“Do you? My sister went to Maryville. Good school. Arty should’ve gone.”
“No, I shouldn’t have.”
“You could’ve gone.”
“College is for dummies.”
“Excuse you.” Katherine leaned forward to tap her cigarette on the ashtray and gestured to me. “One of those dummies is sitting right there.”
I couldn’t help but smile; his own mother was taking my side. “I’m not offended.”
“Well,” Katherine sighed and leaned back against the couch, “it’s not for everyone. I never finished. But I was never very motivated.”
“Plenty of people do fine without it,” A.D. said.
“I just wanted to get out of the house,” I said.
A.D. nodded, relating to my youth. Katherine looked at me, curious. “Did your folks drive you crazy?”
“Yeah, kinda,” I said, and then blushed. “They both have careers, they’re busy all the time, and I’m the youngest. So. Yeah.”
Katherine looked like she was about to say something when the room went black and a consistent hum I hadn’t known was there suddenly ceased, giving the rain more presence than before. Whatever Katherine was about to say before evolved into, “Well, fuck. That’s convenient.”
My eyes adjusted to the darkness and focused on the faint, blue glow of the air purifier. Katherine’s cigarette clashed against it, a tiny circle of compacted orange. She smothered it in the ashtray as A.D. turned on his phone’s flashlight, which shined directly into my eyes.
“Ah, ouch, A.D. My eyes.”
“Whoops. Sorry.” He turned it downwards.
“The lanterns are in the garage,” Katherine said, assumedly to A.D. “Would you be a lamb and get them, Arty?”
“Of course, mother dear,” he said, and stumbled towards the garage door.
“I can go help,” I offered.
“No, no, he’s fine, hon. Put him to work.” There was a brief pause. “You know, he’ll kill me for saying this, but he’s talked about you quite a bit. He thinks you have a lot of spirit, seems to admire the way you call him out on his bullshit. He likes you. And that’s saying something, for him.”
“Oh.” My cheeks were hot, and I was grateful for the darkness. “Well, I don’t know what I did to deserve it. I’m not really nice to him.”
“Neither am I, really,” she said. I scoffed. “I’m serious. I know I give him a hard time. But he’s not a sucker for punishment, you know. He just would rather be spoken to honestly than spoken to at all.”
I nodded in the darkness, forgetting that she couldn’t see me. A.D. returned with the lanterns in hand before I could respond.
“Ma, what the hell happened to the garage?” He set one lantern on the coffee table and held the other.
“Whatever do you mean, son?”
“That’s because I cleaned it.”
“You what?” He laughed. “Wow, you must be really bored these days.”
“Amazing what you can get done when you’re an empty-nester.” She smiled and stood up, tousling A.D.’s matted hair. “I think I’ll head to bed. Rae, you can use the guest room. Arty, the couch.” She took the second lantern and headed down the hall. “Night, kids.”
“Night,” we both answered.
We sat in silence for a minute and listened to the rain vibrate the rooftop and the world. One of A.D.’s songs was stuck in my head, something angry and obnoxious, but it fit the situation and the tension of it, so I let it slide. A.D. sighed in the dim light. I wondered what he was thinking.
“Your mom seems cool,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “She is.”
“Cute little house, too.”
“Yeah. It is.”
I suspected he never thought I’d actually be inside it. What was it like, I wondered, to have someone sit in the space where you once talked about them, assuming that the words spoken would forever remain unknown to them?
It must be awkward. But not as awkward as the space where you say something to someone’s face and know that from that point onward, when they stand in that spot, they’ll remember what you said.
“She raised you right,” I said.
He laughed. “That’s a compliment, right?”
“Feel free to take it as one.”
“Good.” He smirked. “I think I will.”