|This is what I get. This is what I deserve. Pulled over on the shoulder of Lake Shore Drive in the almost 30 year old sea-green Chevy II that my grandfather had been promising me since before I was old enough to drive. Turning the key in the ignition on the dashboard and getting weak, pathetic clicks. No sputtering, no hemming and hawing. Not even some secret-code. Just clicks that sound like a cross between slipping dentures and a leaky faucet.|
did I think I was going anyway? I'm pretty sure there are some maps in the glove
compartment. Who am I fooling? I can't even fold them the right way, let alone
read them. In addition to the twitch in my right eyelid, which has gotten progressively
worse since I left the house this morning, I am map illiterate. I think I was
absent from school a lot during the formative map skills part of my education.|
I remember thinking they were spending too much time teaching us how to read maps. I had a theory, in fourth grade, the Viet Nam war in full swing, that they were just preparing us to be soldiers, and that map reading was an essential part of going to war in another country. I was a peace-nik, in bell-bottoms and hand-me-down Beatle boots. All we needed was love, right?
I don't have to look in my wallet to know that my trial membership in the Triple A had expired 2 years ago. It was one of the first pieces of car-related mail I got right after I inherited my grandfather's car. There must be some car-owner's mailing list in circulation, passed from the gnarled claws of insurance salesmen to the grease-stained paws of mechanics. Somewhere in between are the manicured hands of car stereo and tinted glass and sun-roof salesmen and their ilk.
Add a dead battery to causes-of-death list. Wouldn't you know my grandfather had to have power windows? Not power steering or power brakes, mind you. I'm not complaining, but I haven't been to a gym in years and I still have 18" biceps and a 36" chest and well-developed calves just from parallel parking and braking. The thing is, it's late July, at least 91 degrees out there, probably 101 degrees in here, and I can't crack a window.
No radio either. Not that there's anything to listen to on the AM dial, but it would have been nice to hear another voice inside this car besides my own. If I keep talking, I will drown out the voices in my head. Don't worry, the voices in my head are not telling me that I'm the son-of-God and that I should assassinate the first politician I see. I should be so lucky. The voices are doing a surprisingly good Oliver Hardy imitation, chanting, "Another fine mess you've gotten yourself into this time, Craig..." and so on.
If you asked me how I got here, I would probably take the easy way out and shrug. I could blame someone else, but all you'd have to do is ask them and they would probably just shake their head in that way they do, knowing that I'm up to my old tricks even after I vowed to learn some new ones.
You see, it goes way back. Not discounting recent events that have unfolded like a garden of underwater man-eating plants. It's just that when you combine the past with the present and toss in the unfathomable future, well, you'd probably be sitting right here, next to me on the bench seat (reupholstered in my grandmother's old kitchen curtains) of this car that's old enough to be in the Smithsonian.
If pressed, I would say that things came to a head last week, during a get-together at Ben's apartment. My friends took a vote and decided to tell me about it. None of them would look me in the eye. They kicked at the Persian rug, their shoes, their own shadows. They cleared their throats. They bumped into each other's shoulders, arms, backs, chests. If they kept this up they would soon be a mass of bruises and rawness.
"Would somebody please say something, " I said, tired of being kept in suspense.
Ben pushed Lee towards me. Lee skidded on his heels the way cartoon characters do. He stopped inches from my face, eyes bulging in an expression verging on hysteria. He stayed that way, leaning into and away from me at the same time, his body curving like a road. Then he went slack and he was the definition of droop. He'd never been sexier, even for a matter of seconds.
"We liked you better when you smoked," Lee said, a there-I-said-it smirk on his face as he regained his posture.
"I'm hurt," I said, really meaning it, but pretending not to.
Allen was there to soothe the burn and make it worse at the same time.
"Craig, dear, we agonized over telling you. We all lost sleep, even me, and you know how important my sleep is. We couldn't stand the pressure of keeping something like this a secret. It was too much, like an aneurism or something. One of us was bound to start hemorrhaging."
Was it my imagination, or was Allen biting back a smile? Were the insides of his lips and cheeks covered with fresh teeth-marks? His eyes sparkled from some inner impish light, not from the halogen track lights of Ben and Lee's apartment. The light in Ben and Lee's eyes seemed to be as dim and flickering as a kerosene lamp in a hurricane.
"I'm hurt," I reiterated, "but I'm really glad you told me. You'll never know how much that meant to me. Never."
This is not what they really wanted to tell me. What they really wanted to tell me was that, even though they gave it their best effort, Ben and Lee were breaking up after three years and were in the process of finding separate living quarters. They wanted to tell me that even though we all knew it already, we were supposed to act surprised when Sunny and T.C. made their official announcement, at dinner tonight, about moving to Montana to open the world's largest womyn-only health retreat and gym.
They also wanted to tell me that I didn't deserve any more praise than Daniel, who was rocking quietly back and forth in the fetal position on Ben's bed in the next room, for having quit smoking cold turkey versus wearing the nicotine patch, like Daniel. Daniel, who had taken to smoking and wearing the patch, had developed yellowish circles under his eyes and a slightly glazed, although not entirely unpleasant, glow around the gills. He looked like he just stepped out of a William S. Burroughs novel. I wondered if we, too, should take a vote before telling him.
The rocking had stopped, which meant the squeaking of the mattress springs had stopped, which meant that someone had better say or do something soon, because Allen could not tolerate lapses of silence. To Allen, silence was like a promise; only useful after it'd been broken.
"So," Allen half-said, half-sang, in that way he had of breaking the ice and forming ice crystals at the same time. "Sunny and T.C. will be here any minute, they had to stop at the Womyn's Weigh health spa and drop off an extra set of keys because the night manager lost hers."
"Allen, why can't you say health club, like the rest of us?" Lee asked, on the offensive.
"Because I find the `club' connotation personally reprehensible. It makes it sound like unless you're a `member', you can't be in shape."
"Since when has exclusivity made you flinch?"
"Oh, gee," Allen said, "look at the time. Let's put our claws away, boys and girls, and enjoy some nice cookies and battery acid."
"Battery acid?" Lee said, "Why, you're soaking in it."
The doorbell buzzed and I almost knocked Ben over trying to leave the carnage in the living room for the refuge of the long hallway where the security-door buzzer was.
"After you," I said.
"No, go ahead, Craig," Ben said.
"No, really, it's your apartment, you buzz them in."
"I always get to buzz people in. Why don't you buzz them?"
"Why, thank you," I said, "that's mighty nice of you."
The doorbell buzzed again, and Daniel appeared in the doorway of Ben's bedroom, his hair standing up on end, his face a mass of pillow case creases, moaning softly. He sounded a little like the doorbell. Ben and I stopped in our tracks, our shoulders touching, pressed together in amazement like frightened siamese twins.
"Daniel, is that you?" I asked, not really recognizing him for a second.
"Daniel, honey, why don't you go back inside and lay down? We'll get the door. It's just T.C. and Sunny," Ben said in his most soothing social-worker's voice.
"Or maybe it's the pizza," I said, suddenly remembering how hungry I was before we got sidetracked.
"Pizza?" Daniel echoed, as if we were speaking to him in a foreign language. Then he got this look on his face as if he understood what we were talking about, which changed into an `oh, my god, I've got the dry heaves' look, and he took off at a trot for the bathroom, his big, sexy hands over his mouth.
Even in the midst of psychic disorientation and physical discomfort, Daniel had the foresight and consideration to close the bathroom door. I could fall in love with Daniel if he wasn't such a casualty. As luck would have it, the group's only remaining intact couple and the pizza arrived at the same time. Leave it to lesbians to make an entrance.
"Why didn't we ever try to move into this neighborhood?" T.C. asked, plunking her motorcycle helmet down on Ben's leather sofa. "Parking is as abundant as pussy around here."
"Teese," Sunny said, although it came out more like `sheeeesh'. "I wish you wouldn't talk like that. It puts the boys on edge. Not to mention sending a good crawl through my own skin."
"I'm sorry, Sunny-Bunny. It's just that it's like we've arrived at the intersection of Lesbian Lane and Dyke Drive."
"Forgive her, boys," Sunny said, slipping carefully out of her leather jacket, so as not to break a nail, "her helmet was on too tight."
Ben and I were paying for the pizza, trying to shoo the halfway-cute middle-eastern delivery boy away before he started quoting from the Koran. We closed the door and took the over-sized pizza box into the kitchen, both hoping not to cross Daniel's path, certain the aroma would be enough to send him lurching into the bathroom again.
While the break-up was still in the early stages, Ben and Lee had the kitchen remodeled and it still smelled like it; a cross between construction and the pages of House Magazine. Ben gingerly set the pizza on top of the butcher-block island/counter. He cleared his throat; part nervous habit, part conversation starter. I took his cue.
"I don't know how to ask this politely, so I'll just ask. Who's staying and who's going?"
Our eyes met for a second, and in that brief span of time, Ben's face ran the gamut from confusion to confession.
"Me," was all he said.
This was obviously not the time to discuss the situation. Ben acted as if his hands and arms were wrapped in gauze and I felt like the idiot who asked him whether they were broken or just sprained. He might have been missing parts for all I knew.
Small warm hands covered my eyes, smelling faintly of gasoline and leatherette.
"Guess who, Pumpkin," was whispered in my ear.
Since Sunny was the only one who ever called me Pumpkin, I feigned ignorance.
"Hillary Rodham Clinton? Melissa Rivers? Wrong? T.C., the perfect lesbian species?"
"God, I've missed you," T.C. said, her hands sliding down my face and coming to rest on my shoulders. She must have been standing on her tippy-toes to reach my eyes in the "guess who?" position.
"Don't give him a complex," Allen said from the doorway of the kitchen, "just call him Craig, like everyone else."
"Oh, Allen, he is like a God to me. So big and strong and smart and self-assured."
"T.C.'s in the other room, Sunny," Allen said, straightening his cuffs. "How long have you been confusing the two of them?"
"Craig's one of my heroes. It's his amazing ability to bounce back in the face of adversity that gives me strength. He did survive being your boyfriend, after all, Allen. Didn't he?"
"And the scars have healed remarkably, too," Allen said. "Have you had work done?"
"Only up here," I said, tapping my temple.
Things went, shall we say, downhill from there. Ben looked around the kitchen to see if there were any sharp or blunt objects within either of our reach. Thankfully, there weren't. We retired to the living room. Pizza was served, pizza was eaten. Announcements were made. Real tears were shed. I got heartburn. I kept waiting for someone to say it was all a joke, a tasteless prank. No such luck. There were things I wanted to say, but I felt myself teetering so close to the edge of the precipice, that I bit my lip instead and excused myself. I pulled down my pants and sat on the closed toilet seat and cried quietly into the roll of toilet paper.
That was almost a week ago. Or was it yesterday. Did I mention that my watch died. You know, the one with the calendar. When you're as footloose as I am, what difference does the time and date make. Yeah, right. Try telling that to a bill collector. Which brings me to the final blow, the last resort (no vacancies), the plastic cherry on the cake.
You see, I owe my father a lot of money. Well, not really a lot of money if I could ever hope to pay it back. Not really a lot of money if his business were doing better than it was. But since I can't pay him back yesterday and his business continues on its downward spiral, the amount has taken on mythical proportions. Two thousand dollars, give or take a couple hundred, is really small potatoes when compared to the rest of my debts.
Only death can erase my debts. Debts are what I dream about. Every night, at approximately the same time, my eyes snap open from a variation on the same dream and the numbers on my LED alarm clock are dollar signs until I blink them back into digits. My license plates say it all: IOEVRY1.
Here's an unedited list: a student loan (for a degree I never even earned), 15 maxed-out credit cards (count `em), insurance policies (apartment, health and life), CD clubs, book clubs, magazine subscriptions, past-due rent and utilities.
My father doesn't send past due notices when I'm late with a payment, just verbal reminders so utterly lacking in subtlety that to call them obvious would be just as utterly lacking in logic. If I wasn't so sure I was adopted, I would say that I got my timing and razor-sharp wit from him. My sense of humor came from my mother, who really needed one to stay married to my father. Alas, wit and humor can't pay the bills or get the creditors off my back. It certainly doesn't prepare me for my father's collection agent act, which is going into an unlimited run, anywhere there's an audience of at least one.
It usually happens whenever we drive past the convenience store in the strip mall on the Evanston side of Howard Street. The car fills with tension-fumes as deadly, as invisible, as odorless as carbon-monoxide. I wonder if I am the only one who hears the hissing, sees the black rubber hose dangling snake-like from the driver's side window. No one is paying any attention, they are too busy trying to breathe.
We don't run red lights, drive up on the sidewalk, or into the headlights of an oncoming car. We stay in our lane, maintain the speed limit. We are good at repressing. Still, I can't help but wonder what is being repressed.
My patience is rewarded. On an unseasonably cold Father's Day, I am blessed with knowledge.
"See that store?" my father, who has also recently become a grandfather courtesy of my younger brother and sister-in-law, asks.
How could I have missed it? I've been dreaming of "that store" for years. It doesn't matter what city, country or time zone I'm in or between, I'm dreaming of the Ice Box Convenience Store. Passing it going north, west, south, east, from above, below, this side of the street, that side, in slow motion, in time-lapse photography, in the morning, in the afternoon, after dark. No matter what time of day it is or if I'm travelling on foot or by car, I pass the big picture window of the Ice Box Convenience Store, glowing like a downtown department store. I look in the window and see everything but my own reflection. It is the only dream I remember, the only one I want to forget.
"It's your Bar Mitzvah," my father says, playing with the tinted power windows. "Take a good look at it, that's your Bar Mitzvah."
I know what he means and I don't. Twenty-three years ago, my father and my Uncle Al went into business together. On a hot tip from a friend of the family, they heard that the old man who owned The Ice Box was planning on retiring and that his burnt-out hippie son had no interest in continuing to oil the capitalist machinery. The old man's health was failing, faster since his wife had died the year before.
My father and my uncle knew a good deal when they saw one. They made this incredible-shrinking-man an offer he couldn't refuse, so he didn't. The Ice Box prospered, as did my father and uncle. Then one day my mother looked at the calendar and realized that I was four years away from becoming a man. I remember my parents simultaneously slapping their foreheads and making an appointment with a rabbi.
The first three years of my religious education flew by like a pigeon wearing a ball & chain and before we knew it a hall had to be booked for the party. Caterers and florists and stationers had to be called. A tailor and a band-leader commissioned. There was a guest list to be prepared. And so on.
Oh, the expense. After all, I was the oldest boy, and nothing was too good or too gaudy for me. And when it was all over, my parents were in over their heads. Had they known I would turn out to be an atheist and a homosexual, I suppose they would have proceeded at a slower, more reasonable pace. But, they had witnessed other such functions, and while it is a solemn and reverential event, it is also something of a three-ring circus, minus the dog act.
So now you, and I, know who's to bless and who's to be blamed for the fall of Communism, the confusion in what used to be Yugoslavia, the health care crisis, why there are no good roles for women in movies anymore and the deficit (I mean my father's). Yours truly, Craig.
On that fateful evening in my parents' car, it dawned on me that bringing up the subject of moving back home, a subject I have wrestled with on and off for a year, was best saved for another time. As my imminent eviction and life on the road (or on the street) became ever more a reality, I began having this recurring nightmare where I'd taken up residency in the doorway of one or the other of those north Michigan Avenue multi-level indoor shopping malls.
In the nightmare my parents were a priest and a nun, leading a platoon of Salvation Army bell-ringers, handing out blessings and handfuls of cupcakes frosted the green of currency. They gave me one, which appeared smaller in my hands than in theirs. I gobbled it in one bite, and then in a voice, like Mark Lester's in "Oliver", asked for another. My parents, the priest and nun, spun around to face me in their flowing tie-dyed robes and habit and everything went silent, with the exception of my request which echoed up and down the block.
Then, in a baritone, I never knew she possessed, my mother broke into a song that would be considered a show-stopper in anyone's book. The Salvation Army bell-ringers spun around like dogs chasing their tails and became a chorus line of top-hat and tuxedoed tap-dancers, the taps on their shoes sounding like quarters dropping onto formica.
My father, the dream-priest, picked me up by the ankles and began to shake me, thousands and thousands of nickels and dimes falling from the pockets of my homeless-person pants.
"Thought you could nickel and dime me to death, didn't you?" he roared and laughed, alternately shaking me and spinning me by the ankles like a figure skater. As the blood rushed through my ears, the sound of the tapping coins got louder and louder, sounding like hail gone berserk.
I awoke with a start, sweat rolling down my forehead, nose and chin. The sun through the windshield was so bright, I could barely open my eyes beyond a squint. There was sweat in my eyelashes. The tapping continued. I shielded my eyes with my left hand and looked out the driver's side window of the car.
There was this guy, my age, maybe younger, in a white t-shirt with a red ribbon silk-screened over his left pectoral. He was tapping on the window with a key and moving his mouth. His lips looked like the kind that women paid a small fortune in collagen injections and pain to obtain. Clean shaven, strong cleft chin, Roman nose, perfectly arched eyebrows. He was squinting, too, his Ray Bans in his other hand, but I could make out eyes a bluer shade of pale.
The slight lake breeze tussled his dark blonde hair. He stopped talking, and smiled to reveal two deep-end dimples. I was drowning in them, or was it my own perspiration. I leaned forward, my shirt peeling off the seat, making the sound that individually wrapped slices of American cheese made being unwrapped. The metal door crank was hot to the touch, so I grasped it gently, opening the door slowly.
He was wearing short jean shorts, tight over his, dare I say bulging, thigh muscles. A runner, a body builder, a Roller-Blader? He crossed his arms in front of his chest and the muscles rippled like a mirage. He leaned forward, resting on the open door frame, into the inferno of the car.
"I'm having an acid flashback," I said, "and I don't even do acid."
"It'll pass," he said, "just sit back."
He uncrossed his arms and eased me back against the seat. I jumped a little, my sweat-soaked shirt having had time to cool off.
"Easy," he said.
"Thanks, Conan," I said.
"Conan?" he asked, a puzzled puppy-dog look furrowing his tan brow.
"The barbarian," I said. "Those arms. You could probably carry me home without so much as a grunt of strain."
"That depends on where you live," Conan said, and chuckled a he-man chuckle.
"In this car. I live in this car. I'd invite you in, but I apparently forgot to pay my electric bill."
"And fill the gas tank," Conan said, pointing to the empty fuel gage.
He was right, of course. Aren't all mythological beings right?
"I have a gas can in the trunk of my car. If you want, I can take you to a gas station and we can fill it up."
"Sure," I said, knowing full well that my pockets were empty, and my ATM card had been repossessed this morning. I wondered how Conan felt about running a tab. Suddenly, the future didn't seem so dark as I stepped out into the sunlight of the breakdown lane.
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