A young slacker confides in a well to do Catholic coed about his troubled life
|It is no small feat to awaken a Dada guitarist resting comfortably on the shoulder of his 320 pound Negro bass player.
The chemical makeup of the previous evening alone prohibits the brain from bootstrapping. Complicating the matter further is the gentle embrace of fat cells in the general proximity of what on a normal man might be called a tricep. Another factor inducing the coma certainly was the 20 year old coach on which the slumber occurred. Of course, all of these conditions pale in consideration of the time of day. The ungodly hour of 11:23 AM is no place for the conscious mind.
No, such a confluence of factors make this no easy task. The knocking of Mormons or the loudest of bong hits lack the potency to achieve anything but a brief period of lucid dreaming.
Then the sound of a NEEDLE SCRATCHING ACROSS VINYL!!!
My mind sprung clear of the fog in an instant. What Philistine could commit such an atrocity? Sure, in the early 70s needles and vinyl records could easily be obtained, and hence held no more than a few dollars value. In 1996, however, finding a new needle for a turntable was slightly easier than cold fusion. Replacing the vinyl meant many Sundays scouring flea markets or a road trip to the nearest metropolitan.
I pulled my hair back to reveal a gentle figure bent over the stereo, pawing at the arm with all the grace of a mountain gorilla.
"Use the lever," I pleaded.
"Oh, I didn't mean to wake you." she was oblivious to her sin, as the needle finally settled on a the beginning of the album.
Her name was Lisa or Liza. I'm pretty sure it was Lisa, but sometime during her sophomore year of college she began insisting on the 'Z'.
She was wearing a black belly shirt, which highlighted the shape of each vertebrae through her ivory skin. Her back couldn't have been much wider than my hand stretched out from thumb to pinkie. Short purplish hair exposed a delicate neck with the same outlined spinal features as her lower back.
"I'm skipping class today." My apartment was no more than a couple hundred yards from a private girls Catholic liberal arts college. Only a set of train tracks and a field separated us from the campus.
"Art history too hard today?" I chided.
"I'm an art therapy major" which I remembered before she said it. I regretted bringing it up, because regardless of the countless explanations, I am unable to grasp what the hell 'art therapy' is. Perhaps this is the yin and yang of things. I'm unable to grasp the purpose of esoteric majors, while wealthy Catholic girls are unable to safely operate a turntable.
I stood up and stretched out the previous day. Detroit, my aforementioned bass player, remained sound asleep. I lit a cigarette, when I realized she had put on a "Yes" album.
"You like Yes?"
"I just liked the cover. I'm surprised they can put a naked woman on the cover." She was holding 'Time and a Word', which had a surreal image of a nude woman lying in an out of perspective room with a checkered floor.
"They couldn't in the US. That is a record pressed in England." I reflected back on the needle incident for a moment.
"Was this band big?"
"Not really during this album. It wasn't until their next album, when Steve Howe joined the band..." She put down the album cover, and I decided to not waste any further explanation of progressive British rock.
She seemed pleased with my decision to truncate my answer. Looking over her shoulder she approved with green eyes and a pencil smile. As she turned around, I noticed a new belly button piercing. A small clear blue plastic ball adorned the silver ring recently jammed through her skin. No doubt the belly shirt was selected specifically to show off her plunge into counter culture depravity. I also wondered if she had left class, when the piercing failed to achieve the desired attention.
Anyway she seemed happy to see my gaze on it.
"Do you like it?"
"Yeah it's cool." Whatever. If it made her feel good, I wasn't going to rain on her parade.
She rewarded my affirmation by reaching for my cigarette and taking a drag. This was such an intimate and sexy act, that I fell in love with her in that moment. This shouldn't be taken too seriously, as I fall in love with any girl in most moments. Whether this makes me a romantic or needy is a point of debate.
"I'm going to go jump in the shower. You can hang out down here or up in my room, if you don't want to wake Detroit." I was fairly certain I didn't smell very good, as I couldn't quite put my finger on the last time I took a shower.
As far as my room went, my offer to hang out up there wasn't a ploy for seduction. My apartment was a duplex I shared with 3 other guys, of which very few rooms were clean. My room was the exception. It was nearly immaculate. Not because I'm a clean freak. The truth was I rarely made it up stairs to sleep. Most nights I passed out on the couch. For the year or so I lived there, we had a rolling party going on. People would come and go as they pleased, which always meant a steady stream of booze and pot.
In the basement we had musical equipment for band practice, which rarely ever occurred. We'd go down there to goof around, and sometimes record stuff, but any kind of disciplined rehearsing was a theoretical concept. My life consisted mainly of holding court for a steady stream of guests. Most either still lived at home with their parents or stayed in a dorm. We were the host of debauchery they couldn't find in the civilized world.
I grabbed some clothes out of the laundry basket a jumped in the shower. One of my roommates worked a job job, so there was always plenty of nice smelling stuff in the bathtub. He also needed to do laundry on a regular basis, so we found placing a pile near the washer forced him to wash our clothes as well. After about 5 months, the four of us pretty much shared a wardrobe, as we could no longer keep track of who owned what.
The other two worked shit jobs, much like I used to work. I had since retired from waiting tables.
While I don't usually endorse the practice, I must admit the shower felt good. I began thinking about 'Yes' album covers, which were elaborate works of art. Any kid, who played Dungeons & Dragons, would think the band existed for their own personal taste. If only we could reach those kids, we might have a local following beyond the other local bands. Of course we could always practice and become competent musicians, but something involving 'Yes' album covers seemed more likely.
The hot water begin to fade, so I got out and dried off. I considered shaving, but thought better of it. Hygiene is a slippery slope, and one can lose hours of their life better spent wasted on other things. Brushing my teeth was as far as I would take this already eventful excursion. I used what I believed to be my toothbrush. We hadn't ever worked out the colors, and collectively avoided the topic. It was easier to remain ignorant, and believe we had the problem of using the right tooth brush solved through some sort of psychic understanding.
I made my way into my room to find Lisa sitting at my desk. She was examining my typewriter like someone looking at a rocket ship.
"Why don't you get a computer?"
"Because computers cost money." I was quite used to the question from everyone, who entered my room.
"So you really make money doing this?" There was a hint of judgment underneath her curiosity.
"I make enough to cover my bills."
"You know they are starting to accept computer files on assignments. You are going to have to get a computer eventually. How much does the ink cartridge cost for this thing anyway."
"It uses ribbon cartridges, not ink cartridges. They aren't too much out of a catalog." This was a lie. The machine in question was an AT&T brand typewriter, which I purchased at a flea market for $10 dollars. The ribbons cost me more than the purchase of the machine.
"What happens, if you make a mistake? Do you use white out or something?"
"There is a corrective ribbon." This was also a lie, as the corrective ribbon had run out years before. I forced myself to start the page over, when there was a typo. This actually trains one quickly to pay attention to what they are doing, a habit I lost in later years.
"So you really read all of these books? I mean you actually do the work like anyone else would? You do the citations and everything?" she was looking at my bookshelf, which was getting quite full.
"Yes, there is no other way."
"Why don't you just go to school yourself? Don't you feel bad about this?" like I said, I knew the conversation before it ever happened.
The thing was that I'd tired of working crappy jobs. Part of it was that I hated being treated like a slave, but really I had a kind of phobia about being forced to be around people all the time. I'm not sure if you would call them panic attacks, but I felt trapped during a work shift. It felt like if I didn't concentrate on keeping myself together, I'd go into a full scale breakdown right in the middle of where I was working. The same was true in high school and community college.
But I was a pretty good student, if I could just be given work to do and left alone to do it. So as I became exposed to more college people, I offered to write their papers for them in exchange for money. At first it was just at community college, but soon I was writing for the 3 other universities in close proximity. I met Lisa through her friend, who used my services a few times a semester.
When I first started, I'd charge thirty or so dollars, but soon I could get a couple hundred for big papers or more importantly rush jobs. Once they used me on their first paper, they'd often just hand over their whole semester to me. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you've made a pass through all of the assignments once, the material gets easier. Pretty soon your just making stylistic changes on the same a template you already have down.
It was cash money with no taxes taken out. Between fall and spring semester, I made enough money to live the whole year. The only problem was one of ethical concern, which I didn't see as my problem. I couldn't very well plagiarize myself, so there wasn't anything technically wrong. The only breach of ethics was that the people, who used me, were breaching an honor system. Seeing as the schools were charging obscene amounts and professors were nailing their students, I questioned the whole concept of honor to begin with.
"School costs money, and no I don't feel bad in the least. If people want to pay me to do their work, they are the ones making that decision."
"So were you smart or something?" This question removed all tension I was feeling over the subject.
"Yes, I used to be smart."
"That isn't what I meant" she smiled and let out a nervous laugh. She seemed content to let the subject drop. She rolled my chair over to my guitar, while I sat back on my bed. "Can you play any Radiohead?"
"Yeah, I know a few songs." I was partial to an acoustical arrangement of "Karma Police" I worked out, but I was certain she would ask for "Creep".
"Can you play Creep? I love that song."
I picked up my beloved Taylor, and quickly checked the tuning. The guitar cost me $100 dollars, which was a steal. I bought it off a kid, who complained about the quality of sound he got from it. His was a kid named James, who went to a prep school in Ligonier, and fancied himself a folk singer. On his 17th birthday, his parents bought him the instrument. They were told it was one of the best guitars by the owner of a shop in Pittsburgh.
The 'best' guitar is really a matter of preference. If you want to sound like every other folk singer on the planet, the 'best' guitar is the warm mellow sound of a Martin. A Taylor conversely has a very bright sound, which to some people sounds thin. To me and apparently the shop owner it has a crisp sound, which doesn't get all muddy like most acoustics.
Anyway, the kid never really knew the value of the instrument. When I was in tune, I played her 'Creep' doing my best Thomas Yorke impression on vocals. After I was finished, she requested song after song, only a few of which I couldn't play or at least fake.
"Where did you learn to play?" she seemed content to allow me to put the guitar down.
"From a biker my mom dated."
"What do you mean a biker?"
"I mean a biker. He was a Pagan." I could tell this wouldn't be easy to explain.
"You mean like a Harley rider in a leather jacket?"
"Yeah." He actually road a Triumph. The Pagans favored Triumphs and tended to wear blue denim instead black leather jackets. The common image of a biker comes from the Hell's Angels, but they are only one of many motorcycle gangs. The Pagans were in charge of Western Pennsylvania, and were no less criminal than the Hell's Angels.
"So he was big into Rock and Roll?"
"Not really. I actually learned blues, blue grass and country first." This was true. I always listened to rock from the time I was a kid, but he used to take me with him to pick'n night at the club in West Virginia. There many guys brought all kinds of instruments like banjos and violins. Someone would start a melody, and everyone would just kind of fall in with what was being played.
"Do you still play with him?"
"No he was shot, when I was 16."
"Oh my god! Who shot him?" she seemed skeptical of my story.
"The cops shot him, when he was holding his wife at gun point in the garage of his house in West Virgina." At least this is what I understood to have happened. I knew that a swat team was called out, and ended up busting into the house, after a domestic dispute turned ugly.
"I thought you said he was dating your mom. Who was his wife?"
"She lived in West Virginia. When he was up here, he stayed with my mom. He helped her pay her bills." This was also true.
"Was he a drug dealer?"
"I don't think so, but it wouldn't surprise me. He did something with poker machines. Sometimes he'd keep them in our basement." I could see she seemed bothered by this. One of the problems with having a not so normal life is the feeling you must defend things you have no desire to defend.
"Wasn't that illegal? I mean, wouldn't your mother be also breaking the law?"
"Probably. I don't think she had a lot of choice in the matter, and I doubt she would have said anything anyway." I remembered I had a joint in my desk drawer, and thought it would be necessary to continuing the conversation.
Then I heard Detroit's booming voice calling up the stairs.
"He Matt. I'm going to Taco Bell, and then going to see Jack at the shop. What are you into today?" Few things annoyed me more than people yelling between rooms, but in Detroit's case I made an exception. When you weigh over 300 pounds, any trip up a flight of stairs is a careful cost benefit analysis.
Detroit's real name was Carl, after his father, who was the super attendant of the school system we attended. He was a year ahead of me in school, and I only knew him casually then. He was also an all conference defensive lineman, which earned him a scholarship to WVU. In August before his first semester ever started, a left guard rolled up his knee in a scrimmage. Both his MCL and PCL were torn completely, and his ACL was barely still attached.
He returned home two weeks later, and had taken up the bass guitar. He went from 275 pounds to over 300 in a few months. If the truth were ever known, I think he was happy about the whole thing. His father had a doctorate in education, and pushed Detroit hard to be a proud educated black man. Detroit would have traded all of his proud African American heritage to play an single show with the Clash.
"One second, man!" I looked over at Lisa, "You want anything from Taco Bell."
"No, but if I'm keeping you, I can go back to school." I didn't really feel like leaving the house.
"Nah man, I'm just going chill here!"
"Cool, peace my brother! I'll probably be back tonight!" Detroit still lived at home, but was the apartment's unofficial 5th roommate. I could hear the rusty whine to the door of his Impala as he left.
"What shop is he talking about?" I didn't quite pick up what she meant.
"He said he was going to see Jack at a shop. What shop?" she seemed hesitant to mention Jack's name.
"Oh. Jack works at his dad's machine shop, and usually has people hang out with him there."
"Jack is an asshole. I know he's your roommate and all, but he is an asshole." when she first started hanging around my apartment, she had some thing with Jack, but then he decided to start making fun of her the very next time she was over.
"Yeah, he's an asshole."
Jack was an asshole, but he came by it honestly. His dad was a Vietnam vet, who wasn't wrapped too tight. He was a mean son of a bitch, which is probably why Jack's mother left when he was 3. He once tried to go live with her in Florida, but she told him now wouldn't be a good time. For 20 years it turned out it was never a good time for Jack to go live with her.
Worse than his dad being a mean son of a bitch was how cool he was with all of Jack's friends. When the only person, who wants you, treats strangers better than he treats you, and your mother wants nothing to do with you at all, your demeanor probably isn't going to come out too well. Jack was especially cruel towards women emotionally. He wasn't violent or anything, but he delighted in their misery. Guess he though it wasn't the right time for them.
"Do you think I'm shallow and vapid?" she was obviously still on her Jack was mean to me trip.
"No, I don't think that. Why, do you think your shallow and vapid?" I quickly got to my joint, as this had the potential to turn ugly in a hurry.
"I'm not good at anything. I'm not special like you guys." her voice was lower than usual. The kind of softening and drop in pitch you hear with honesty.
"What the fuck does that mean? In 5 years you'll be a hundred times more successful than any of us losers." Despite my protest, I knew what she meant. We weren't special, but we were real. She lived in a world where reality probably wouldn't touch her for a few more years. She was lucky in that way.
"Sometimes, I don't think I exist at all. I pretend I'm someone, but I'm really no one." she seemed self conscious at her statement. She didn't know whether it was deep or foolish.
"Being no one is what allowed me to be the way I am now." I paused to consider whether what I said was deep or foolish. "I mean, I wasn't special growing up. Most of my life had to be kept a secret. I didn't have the same experiences as other people at school, so I just tried to stay away from most people. That allowed me to be whatever I wanted in my head, because I was never going to be what other people wanted anyhow."
"You would have hated me in high school. I was a preppy kid." I knew she meant this statement seriously, but I found it amusing anyway. The very notion that I even understood how the social pecking order functioned in high school was absurd. Moreover, i was pretty much hated by everyone, so the validity of who I hated or didn't was of no consequence. She noticed my smile at the thought, and laughingly responded "I'm serious, I was a complete bitch."
"Listen, neither of us is in high school anymore, so why don't we not worry about it."
"Matt, you really don't get it do you? We are always in high school. Maybe you can hide from that here, but everywhere else that is still true. My dad is a lawyer and my mom is an administrator for a hospital. They taught me how to be in high school. They are still in high school at their jobs, with their friends and with the people in my neighborhood." she knew I was going to have a tough time understanding this. "I like you, but if I brought you home to my parents for dinner they'd be nice to you. But the second you left, they'd call you a loser."
"Well, don't bring me home to them then."
"I don't have to bring you home to them. Everyone is them. You guys think I'm shallow, but I bust my ass staying in everyone's good graces. I don't do it because I like it. I fucking hate it. I do it, because that is the game everyone has to play. You think you can avoid playing it, but you can't. You are wasting your time hiding, because you're going to have to face the same thing." she seemed to get more upset with every word.
"Hey, I don't need a lecture from you. You have no idea what I've been through!" my voice was getting sharper, which upset me because I was petrified of yelling.
"I'm not lecturing you. You don't understand. I like that you aren't them. I like that you are free. I just can't be free. I have to be shallow and vapid. You would to, if you wanted anything from life."
I didn't say anything for a few minutes. My brain was trying to put together what she said. What it might have lacked in elegance, it made up for in some deep truth. I couldn't put my finger on it, but she knew of what she spoke. I composed myself, and looked at my bookshelf.
"Have you ever heard of Ludwig Wittgenstein?"
"No." her tone was short, as she thought I was going to play some trump card from my intellect.
"Don't be like that. I just asked, you ever heard of him." I tried to soften my voice.
"Just say what you are going to say." she was still skeptical.
"Wittgenstein published a 75 page book after the first world war called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus..." i held my hand up gently to keep her from interrupting me, "In it was a phrase, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'. In other words, when you don't know how something is or how something works, you shouldn't attempt to theorize about that thing. You are absolutely right. I don't know how the world works. I don't know how people work. Neither does Jack. Neither do any of the people wasting their lives in this shit hole."
"I wasn't saying that..." I stopped her again.
"Yes, you were saying that, and you were right to say it. You tell me you know what you have to do to get by in life, and I believe you. I admire you for it. You don't have to apologize to me or anyone else for it. Especially not Jack, because Jack is the most miserable son of a bitch I know." her eyes were intense, but softer than they had been, "You asked me if I think your shallow and vapid. The answer is no, and neither does Jack. He is just jealous of you for not having to carry all of his shit around. He is jealous of the whole world for the same reason."
"I'm sorry. I just don't think anyone understands how much he hurt me. I almost left school over it." I couldn't decide, if she was serious. Another part of me was jealous. Here I was having a conversation, and apologizing for Jack's indiscretions.
"Well, I'm not Jack. You asked me what I thought, and I told you. I'm not about to have a heart to heart with him over this. He isn't wired that way, and I don't really care what he does." I lit up the joint, and took a long drag. I consciously looked away to avoid her reaction.
"Are you jealous I slept with him?" her tone wasn't mean, but the question was cutting all the same.
I passed her the joint without looking up.
"I don't care, if girls sleep with Jack." my voice sounded funny as I exhaled. I couldn't tell, if it sounded funny in my head or it really sounded that way.
"I didn't ask about girls. I asked if you were jealous that 'I' slept with Jack." her voice sounded funny for the same reason, and I was certain it wasn't in my head.
"This is the first real conversation we've had. Why would I be jealous, when I didn't even know you?" even as I said it, I knew that logic wasn't at play. I was jealous.
We both had a moment of silence, while we passed back and forth. I could feel the tension leave my body.
"When I first came here, I was in the living room for ten minutes before you went upstairs with Rachel. She came back after a half hour, and you never came back down at all." Rachel was her friend, whom I wrote papers for.
"Because I was writing her paper, which was due the next day."
"I didn't know she was one of the people you wrote papers for." she was sinking back into my desk chair as the high took hold.
"What? She's your friend. What did you think she was here for?" I felt like this was overly combative, but couldn't help myself.
"See, that's exactly what I was saying earlier. Why do you think she was my friend?" her voice was refreshingly more playful now.
"Well, you were hanging out with her. You went with her to a stranger's apartment."
"I was going with her, because she asked me to. I thought she was going to meet a guy or buy weed or something. She was just a popular girl at school, and I was from Maryland. I didn't know anyone here really. Rachel couldn't get anyone else to come, so she asked me. It is high school, just like I said before." her thoughts stumbled a bit, but I was interested none the less.
"So what was Jack, the high school quarterback?" this statement came out meaner than I wanted it to. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why I was so argumentative.
"Why are you like that?" she was strangely calm in this question.
"Why do you push people away like that?" it was a very good question, which I was struggling to find an answer to. She preempted any babbling response I might attempt. "See you think, that because Jack's an asshole, I should have been more interested in you. You think this despite never even trying to talk to me."
Did I think that? My mind was struggling to evaluate the truth of all of this. She decided to keep going without my answer.
"And why do you let Rachel use you like that?" she was leaning forward now, which was kind of creeping me out.
"Rachel gave me $150 dollars to write a paper."
"You don't care about the money. If you cared about money, you'd live a better lifestyle than you do. Is it some kind persecution complex?" my mind finally started catching up enough to address her last question.
"If it's a persecution complex, it's not something I'm conscious of. You think, because I can read all these books, write all these papers and play this guitar, I can just go out and do anything I want. You really don't get it do you?" she sat down on indian style on the other end of the bed.
"I don't get what?" a kindness was returning to her voice.
"The people on that book shelf over there. Most of them never found a place in their own time. They wrote about their ideas, because they couldn't talk to the people in their lives about their thoughts. Descartes is writing to Aristotle not France. Sartre is trying to comfort Kierkegaard. All of this art and philosophy exists, because these artists and philosophers have no other way to connect to their worlds. So they stick a message in a bottle, and hopes it ends up in the right hands. These distractions as you see them, are the only place I can feel comfortable."
I stamped the roach out in an ashtray before continuing.
"When I sing you a Radiohead song, I don't know what the song means exactly. I don't know Thomas Yorke. But I know the chords they use, and the key it's written in. I know the melody and the rhythm. I know the feeling of going from an F to an F minor. When, whoever wrote that song, wrote it, they were trying pass along something internal." I was feeling pretty high at this point, so my rhetoric might have gotten a bit too lofty and slightly incoherent. "Now you think I do these things to avoid doing other things. I do these things, because they are written in a language I understand. I could sit at a thousand dinners with your parents, and never once have a relatable moment. But I crack one of those books or figure out a song, and I'm instantly a part of something."
She slid close to me and laid her head on my chest. She closed her eyes, as I stroked her back with my fingers. The silence was a welcome relief, but something inside me still wasn't entirely comfortable. She seemed to sense this, and without lifting her head broke the silence.
"Was it really that bad?" her voice was sweet and somber.
"Was what really that bad?"
"Everything it took to get here."
"Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty rough."