it’s a living #8

Trigger Warning at the end. Please take care of yourself. 

I don’t know why it takes over a year for the reality of it to hit me; denial or repression or shock, take your pick. Maybe it’s Gabby, the only real connection to my past, sprawled on my living room floor, setting up her ancient Nintendo 64. There had been such a strict divide, before and after the Incident; a Venn Diagram of two separate circles, but now those circles crossed. The smallest of collisions created a ripple effect of memories and emotions in my head, and it can’t be undone now.

“I’m really glad we were able hang out before I head back to school,” Gabby’s saying as she untangles some cords.

“Yeah, totally.” I wonder if she can hear the hollowness in my voice.

“I ran into Vicki the other day–you remember Vicki?”

“Badass tattoo girl,” I mumble.

“Yeah, exactly. Dude, I really thought you had a crush on her when we were freshies, even if you denied it. But anyways I ran into her the other day and she was telling me about her job at the mechanic’s down on 4th Street, and…”

This is how my life used to be. People came over and we talked about ourselves and other people and we complained about our teachers and discussed the newest Marvel movie and we ate pizza that our parents had ordered without a second thought to how much it cost, and we just were. There was no other way to be. Now it’s as if I’ve lost that ability. I can’t even re-contextualize the me that cares about how much the pizza cost into a situation of sociality that is so much better suited to the old me. I try to fit who I was over top of who I am, but that Kip is a mask made for a different face.

She’s just a person, I tell myself. She’s probably different now too. You’re not the only one who can change.

That helps a little, gets me out of my self-pitying spiral just enough to sit down next to her on the floor and play some fucking Mario Kart, the cure-all for existential breakdowns.

“Where’s your roommate?” Gabby asks after she beats me for the third time in a row.

“Working. She’s a bartender down on central.”

“Cool. How’d you meet her?”

A fuzzy memory of nausea and dulled terror hits me, a glass of water being set it front of me, a voice, tough luck, I don’t enable already drunk underage kids.

“Craigslist.”

Gabby laughs. “Super safe, Kip.”

“I am the model of adulthood.”

“Hell yeah you are.” She starts another round. “I’m like, still fully depending on my parents, and look at you, out here living all responsibly with your own apartment and job and shit.”

“I did a week’s worth of dishes like five minutes before you came over.”

“Well, one step at a time.”

One step at a time. Step one was getting out–was not immediately putting myself into a hole six feet under. Surviving. It’s all I’ve been doing, all I know how to do. Clinging to the edge of the cliff, unable to pull myself up, unable to let go.

“I like your hair longer, by the way. You look older. All cool and hipster. Bet it’s long enough to make a man-bun.”

“Oh yeah, thanks. I’m… trying something new.”

I’m aware of the fact that she’s making all the conversation, asking me all the questions, but I can’t think of a single thing to ask. I try to pull up information on her parents or siblings or an interest she has that I can inquire after, but the only question I can think of is, does your life suck as much as mine?

She wins the next round too. “Dude, you suck. You used to be way better than me.”

“Ah, I accidentally dropped my console and haven’t been able to get a new one yet.”

“That’s no excuse. You can’t untrain your brain how to play Mario Kart. It’s burned onto your hard drive.”

I shrug. “Well then maybe it’s you who’s gotten better.”

“Finally, I can take my rightful place as Queen.”

“You know, when I invited you over, it wasn’t so that you could usurp my throne.”

“That’s the thing about usurping, honey. You’re not supposed to see it coming.”

This, the banter. This I can do. This has been burned into my hard drive, an automatic button that gets pressed and allows me to slip back into something normal for a couple minutes.

 

Right before Gabby finishes packing up, she sighs, back towards me, and begins tentatively. “Kip.”

I ignore the unease in her voice. “Traitor to the crown.”

“I, uh. Heard about what happened.”

My stomach flips. I haven’t done this yet, not even with Deanna, and I don’t want to do it now. “What d’you mean?”

“C’mon, don’t play the Dumb Kip card. ” She turns to look at me, eyes roving my face for answers. “I know you better than that.”

“It’s…” I sigh. “Who told you?”

Gabby looks far too pitying. “Everyone knows, Kip.”

“Everyone?” I sit down on the couch, my head spinning.

“Yeah, man.”

My head nods, a movement independent of thought.

“But um.” She’s looking at me hard now, like she’s really trying to drive her point home. “I just wanted you to know that… uh. I’m cool with it, and. If you ever need anything…”

More nodding. “Thanks, Gabs.” I manage a half-smile. “Hey, at least now you’ll believe that I really wasn’t into Vicki.”

Gabby wraps her cord around her hand, then shoves it in her backpack. “Yeah, you know, maybe it was me who had a crush on her.” It’s a joke, but she’s fiddling with her backpack zipper and no longer making eye contact.

“For real?” Something like happiness bubbles up into my throat.

“I don’t know.” She shifts. “Yeah, maybe.”

“That’s awesome, Gabby.”

“Yeah?”

“Are you kidding?” My happiness bubble bursts into laughter. “This proves the theory that queer kids flock together before they even know they’re queer.”

Gabby’s laughing too now, and I can see a familiar relief in her shaking shoulders. “Wow, I haven’t seen you this happy since graduation. I would have led with this if I had known you were gonna go full puppy dog on me.”

The overlapped Venn Diagram of my two lives–absolutely panic-inducing just a couple minutes before–feels different now; a reassurance that both exist, separate and together at the same time.

“Okay.” Gabby stands up and swings her backpack over her shoulder. “This has all been very cathartic, and I think I’m drown in a pool of my own relief now.”

“Honestly, same.”

She kisses me on the cheek and gives me a big hug, that energy she’s famous for building back up inside her like a balloon. “Text me, my beautiful gay boy. We’re really stuck with each other now.”

Yes, we are.

Trigger warning: brief mention of suicidal thought. 

it’s a living #7

“Do you think,” Deanna grabs a jar of Jiffy peanut butter from the grocery store shelf, “That buying new underwear instead of washing my dirty ones makes me more or less adult-ish?”

I pluck the jar out of her hands and replace it with an off-brand. “I think it makes you gross.”

“Because, like, if I wash my dirty underwear then that’s very responsible of me, but if I’m able to afford buying new ones that means I’m making even a little money, which is the American Dream.”

“Is destroying the environment with your wasteful approach to undergarments the American Dream?”

“Um yeah? Haven’t you read The Great Gatsby?”

“I must have missed the part where Daisy throws all her underwear off the edge of her dock at the end of every week. No wonder I barely passed high school English.”

Deanna holds up a loaf of whole wheat bread.

I groan. “Do we have to?”

“Yes. It’s better for you.”

I waved a loaf of white bread in her face. “Look at it. Fluffy. Sweet. Like a kiss from an angel.”

“Yeah, the angel of death.”

I scowl and put the bread back.

“Good boy.”

The produce section–a battleground where the winner decides what our fresh fruit/vegetable of the week will be–is more crowded than usual. We spend our time there brandishing our preference from across the rows, making increasingly insistent faces and gestures to avoid yelling through the crowd, until I’m told by a tired-looking employee to “please handle the oranges gently, sir.”

“Yeah, Kip. God. No respect for mother nature.”

I give Deanna the finger. A soccer mom sees, scandalized, and works her way across the apple aisle for some good old-fashioned confrontation before Deanna pulls me into the flower section.

She’s giggling, looks present and childlike, eyes clear of that glaze that I assumed was just a part of her.

“We are a menace to society,” I sigh.

Deanna’s looking at me with something akin to pride, which is a weird reaction to me being scolded by a supermarket attendant and then escaping murder-by-soccer-mom. It makes me feel shy, like when a teacher you want to impress gives you a smiley face on your test, so I avert my gaze to the left, eyes landing on a bouquet of tulips. I pick them up.

“Pretty, huh?”

I nod. “My mom used to get flowers for the kitchen window every week.”

“Yeah?” Her tone is cautious.

“Yeah. Once, uh–once she wanted to get a fresh batch of roses because she had some important people coming over, and I. Um. I asked if I could take the old ones up to my room, you know, cause they were pretty and still perfectly fresh looking.”

“Mm. How’d that go?”

“She let me take them; said it was good for a man to appreciate the more delicate things. My dad, though…”

“Not a fan of the ‘men’ and ‘delicate’ combo?”

“Something like that.”

Deanna nods, somber, and I chide myself for bringing the mood down. She motions to the tulips in my hand. “You wanna pick some out?”

“What?”

“Flowers. You wanna get some for the apartment?”

“No, no.” I put the bouquet back as fast as I can. “They’re expensive and we don’t need them.”

She shrugs. “We got off-brand peanut butter. We can afford it.”

“We got whole wheat bread. No we can’t.”

“Bananas were our fruit of the week. Cheapest there is.”

“Good, then we can save our money.”

“Kiiiiiiiip.” She picks up the bouquet closest to her and sticks it under my nose. “Stop and smell the roses, Kip.”

I cross my arms. “Those are baby’s breath.”

“Kiiiiip,” She swings them back and forth like she’s trying to hypnotize me. “Don’t be a pedantic dick, Kip.”

The smell of the flowers seeps into my brain, sending me back to that bright kitchen with its nearly-fresh roses. I gently push the flowers out of my face. “Dea, seriously. We’ll just get what we got and save some money.”

She appraises me for a moment, then shrugs. “Fine, spoilsport.”

The next stop is the gas station. When we pull in, Deanna begins texting her boss about scheduling, and asks if I’ll hop out and fill up the car.

I feel heavy. I can’t unbuckle.

“Kip?”

“My mom called the other day.”

“Shit,” she mutters. “You answer?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.” She’s looking at me. “Wanna talk about it?”

My gaze remains in strict dashboard territory. “No, I just… ” I squeeze my eyes shut until the prickling feeling behind them goes away. “I just wanted to tell you.”

“Okay, well, if you change your mind–”

“I’ll get the gas.” I unbuckle and throw myself out of the car, slamming the door behind me. Good. Good job, Kip.

 

It’s a wide, unbusy two-lane road surrounded by empty fields that Deanna pulls over on, shifting the gear to park with an edge of defiance. I think, this is it, though I’m not sure what “it” is. A lecture, at best, a “your life is too much and I need you to move out” at worst.

Instead she points to the field and says, “flower time, baby.”

The bark of laughter that bursts through my chest, unexpected and giddy, is enough of a catalyst for me to undo my seatbelt and follow her out into the open air. The wildflowers are small, insignificant. Free, in both senses of the word. Dandelions are the only ones I know by name, but there are tiny white ones with petals that look like they’re made of porcelain, purples that work their way up the stem like a vine, and the yellows attract the most bumble bees. Deanna is brave enough to fetch those for me. By the time we’re done, we’ve got two bouquets of chaotic, brambly weeds that are already beginning to wilt.

She holds up our bounty with a combination of horror and delight. “Look at our perfect, ugly children.”

I giggle. “I can’t wait to watch them succeed in their perfect, ugly plant lives.”

“They’re gonna grow up, get married. These are 401k flowers, I can tell.”

I should say thank you, I want to say thank you, but I can’t. Thanking her means acknowledging that she helped me. Which means I needed help. “Deanna.”

“Kip.”

“My flowers are better than yours.”

“Fuck you.”

it’s a living #6

I’m about halfway home. The bus is chugging along, industrious yet tired, and I’ve got my earbuds buried in as far as as they’ll go. I’m listening to a semi-decent 80’s playlist on Spotify, and the woman next to me keeps looking at me like she wants to talk to me, so I make a point to look even more “sulky teen” than usual. It’s not that I mind a conversation now and then–might even welcome it if it serves as a distraction–but today’s not one of those days.

When David Bowie cuts off, I assume it’s a bad connection for half a second before the silence is traded for my ringtone. I pull it out of my pocket, see the name across my screen, and decline the call with panicked rapidity. The woman next to me sees this, her eyes rove across my face as if my shit is any of her business, but I refuse to acknowledge her, waiting instead for Bowie to refill my ears and the static to return to my thoughts.
One verse later: my phone rings again, and this time I stare at the incoming call as dread begins to sink in. They haven’t called at all since I last saw them a year ago, and I can’t think of a reason they would now. I decline the call.

The music hasn’t enough time to start back up before I feel a tap on my shoulder. I sigh. Take my headphones out.
“It’s none of my business…”
—That’s for fucking sure—
“But if your mom is worried about you, you should really answer and let her know you’re okay.”
I nod. The thing is, my mom probably is worried. Not about the things she should be worried about, but worried nonetheless. “Yeah.”
The phone rings a third time. Now I’m worried. What if something happened? Is Lucy sick? Hurt? That’s enough to get me to answer, and as I do I see the woman out of the corner of my eye looking smug as if she had convinced me to answer. I’m almost feeling contrary enough to hang up, just to spite her.

“Hello?” My stomach is turning itself inside out, and I can already feel that ever-familiar tremor working its way down into the bones of my fingers.
I hear a little gasp on the other side, small enough that it might be a crackle of interference.
“Mom?”
“Hi Kip.”
“Mom.” My brain has come to a screeching halt. Mom, mom, mom. A weird word. A weird concept. Haven’t thought about it in too long. Sometimes Deanna is Mom-ish to me, but in a cool mom, doesn’t-enact-enough-discipline kind of way. Not real-mom. Not even surrogate-mom. Deeply involved aunt, maybe.
But this isn’t my deeply involved aunt on the phone, it’s my mom. Mom.
“How are you, Kip?”
“I’m… fine.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Yeah.
There’s a pause, and I take that time to shut my processing centers off. I can deal with whatever this means later.
“How’s Lucy?” It’s the only question that matters much; might as well start with it.
She laughs a small, strangled laugh. “She’s good.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah. She misses you.”
Yeah.


Keeping the panic at bay is harder than I thought it’d be. The tremor has bounced back from my fingertips, traveled up my arms and into my core. “Why uh… why’d you call?”
“Wanted to say hi.”
“Oh.” Does not compute. “Hi.”
She laughs again. “Hi. Hey, um, where are you living these days?”
These days. Like the question is for a fucking business man who moves around a lot, and not someone she thinks might be homeless.
I don’t answer. If she knew, then they could find me. I’m not ready for that. From somewhere on the crowded bus, a baby starts screaming.
“Is that a child?” Her tone is hilarious.
“Yeah. I adopted a kid.” The joke comes unbidden, far too naturally, as if this is a normal conversation.
“Uh—”
“Kidding. I’m on a bus.”
“Right.”
The bus lurches to a halt, the hissing tires fill my ears, and I don’t catch whatever she says next. “Listen, I uh—this is my stop. I gotta go.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“I’ll…” I can’t say that I’ll talk to her later. That’s far too much commitment. “Bye, Mom.”
“Bye, hon.” She takes a breath, like she’s got one more thing to say. I can hear the moment she decides not to say it. “Bye.”
“Bye.”

As the bus pulls away, I can see the woman who sat next to me staring out the window at me, smug smile replaced with something sad and betrayed, like she had expected the phone call to lead to tearful and precious apologies, not a half-conversation stilted with bitterness.

The aftershock hits me the second I step inside the apartment, and I melt to the floor in a puddle of my own adrenaline.
“Wow.” Deanna’s voice startles me despite my assumption that she was home. “Long day?”
I shrug.
“Wanna talk about it speed-round style? I’ve got seven minutes before I’ll be unacceptably late for work.”
I look up at her. “If I come to work with you will you let me get drunk?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Hm. Maybe you are Mom-ish.”
“What?” Deanna grabs her dinner out of the fridge and snatched her purse from the counter.
“Nothing. Get outta here. Don’t be late.”
She stares at me.
“What? I’m fine, I swear. Go.”
“You’re sitting in front of the door.”
“Oh.” I scoot forward just enough to let her squeeze through.
She gives me one last look. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
“Sure.” We won’t.
“‘Kay. Bye.”
“Later, sucker.” I slam the door before she can look at me like that again.

it’s a living #5

Every weekday morning between 6:55 and 6:58 a.m., a guy comes into the gas station and buys a black coffee and a four-pack of powdered donuts. He wears khaki pants and a button down, has reading glasses perched on the top of his head like he’s a middle-age tax accountant, rather than the 20-something he appears to be. He always says “good morning” when he comes in, and “thanks a bunch” when I hand him his receipt. I say “morning, sir, welcome” and “no problem, have a great day” back. Those are the only words we’ve ever exchanged.

I know three semi-interesting things about him:

  1. His name is Jean-Pierre, pronounced with a proper French accent despite the fact that every other word out of his mouth sounds strictly American, which is an unprecedented level of sophistication from someone who spends their life in khakis.
  2. He always pays in cash with exact change.
  3. He has a tattoo that peeks out from his half-rolled-up sleeve. Flowers, maybe–it’s hard to tell.

From these mundane observations I patchwork together a wild and unlikely past. Perhaps he’s some sort of agent, covering his tracks by only paying in cash, trying to look as unassuming as possible in his desk job get-up. The tattoo is a mark of his organization, a pledge to them. The powdered donuts are for an informant of his who’s in hiding, who he meets every morning, trading information for the person’s favorite junk food. The reading glasses that he seems too young to need don’t actually function as glasses, but when he wants the guy in the surveillance van to see what he’s seeing, he puts them on and the tiny camera installed in the left frame activates. I figure it must be the left frame, because whenever they begin to slip from where they nest in his hair, he pushed them up with his left hand.

I wish he would pay with a credit card just once so that he’ll sign his name and I can confirm if he’s left-handed. He’s on the phone most morning, and it’s always in his left hand. I like to imagine that he was originally right-handed, but switched when he went off the grid so that his handwriting would be different. I don’t know if that’s a real thing. I hope it is.

When he comes in at 6:58 rather than 6:55, I assume it’s because he was up late last night researching for his next big… secret agent thing. I never get far enough in this creative exercise to come up with the details of his job, it’s mostly just outlandish explanations to small oddities.  

One day, I hand him his receipt, and he takes it, glances down at my name tag, and says, “Kip. What’s that short for?”

I shrug. “Just my name.”

He nods and picks up his coffee, lifting the cup towards me in a little toast. It leaves a ring of liquid on the counter that I won’t take the time to wipe up. “Well, chin up, Kip.”

He walks out the door, pushing it open with his shoulder while answering his phone. “This is Jean-Pierre…”

I haven’t seen him since.