Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Do This I Do That- Chapter 21

XXI. "You're Ignorant! You're Ignorant!"

The driver descended from the MegaBus door and stood in the gutter next to the accumulating line. He smoked a cigarette and periodically pulled his sagging gray slacks back on top of the slope of his protruding waist. His dark eyes looked like dirty pebbles, heavy and small. He had a thick Pancho Villa mustache that was almost comically primped, turning down at both sides. He watched the shallow ducks daintily heave their bags into the storage compartment below the bus. People in line looked at him like he ought to help. He spat in response.

Wheeler and I held back while the bus filled, and I peeked between the bobbing heads and made a note of where precisely the chickadees had sat. They were third or fourth row up from the rear.

The front half of the bus was still scarcely sat, and from behind the line I eyed an empty spot on the right side close to the front. I positioned Wheeler ahead of me to ensure I was adequately hidden.

"You don't want them to see you? Just come here," said Wheeler, putting his arm around my neck like I was about to be the victim of a noogie. He quickly pulled his t-shirt over my head. His abdomen was damp and salty against my face and I struggled to walk down the aisle without hitting what felt like chairs, or arms, or bags. Wheeler laughed gaily and popped me out into an empty seat.

"You're ridiculous. And disgusting," I said.

"That was just as obvious as what you were doing, hiding behind me like a little kid. Who the fuck cares if you know those girls?"

"I can't explain it."

He put his backpack up above the seat and sat down next to me. He scratched his nails on the chair by his lap, tracing the multicolored laser-like dashes seamed into the thick royal blue fabric. M*A*S*H was playing on the small TV in front of us, and the familiar theme song competed with the hushed sounds of slow classic rock coming from the driver's personal radio.

Three Amish people settled in a few seats behind us, and I wondered how fascinated they were or how shameful they felt over all the exposed knees everywhere on the bus. I imagine that to Amish people, the bluntness of all the exposed knees and shoulder blades would be the equivalent of me walking onto a bus with butts and boobs abounding, with no apologies or complaints.

I heard a program on NPR about an Amish boy who took a spiritual sabbatical on his 18th birthday. He left his community for 6 months, and at the end of the sabbatical he could either choose to return to the Amish way of life, or dissent into mainstream culture forever. He ended up getting addicted to meth.

These three looked meth free, and they were only an arms reach away, which excited me. I could faintly hear the sound of their conversation. Their possible topics for discussion filled me with curiosity. I figured they may banter over homemade furniture, or jam, or cornfields, ears of corn, religious paraphernalia, sin, buttons, maybe... hats. If I was raised Amish, the lure of meth (or anything shiny or sharp really) would likely be my demise too.

Everyone else around was boring and ugly. Across from us, an overweight black girl was talking on the phone with one hand and eating flaming hot Cheetos with the other. She had long fake pink nails with detailed white designs etched on them. She had a backpack sitting on the seat next to her, even though the bus was nearly full.

I remember one time when Cait and I went for a walk through Lincoln Park, we happened to be slightly drunk and we walked straight through a kid's soccer game. It was clearly a huge interruption, and an angry dad ran after us, screaming, "You're ignorant! You're ignorant!" That's all he said. I suppose he was right, but at the time the complaint lacked so much specificity to me. For some reason the vision of this big girl eating hot Cheetos and not giving a damn about taking up two seats made me think of that screaming dad.

There was an old woman standing in front of the big girl who had a look on her face like she knew she was old and everyone else should care. She waited for someone to help her put her bag into the upper storage compartment. The big girl didn't get up. I nudged Wheeler and he noisily got up and made a big fuss over her. He called her sweetheart. I thought for a moment that he may slap her ass, but thankfully he just faked the motion when she wasn't looking.

I looked back to see the Amish people's reactions but they were stone cold serious. I could imagine the Amish man thinking about corn or buttons to distract himself from the mainstream buffoonery.

Wheeler sat back down and tried but failed to put his arm around my shoulder. I pushed him off of me like a reflex. The bus was already running 30 minutes behind schedule, but we remained outside of Union Station. The doors were still open and the driver still stood on the curb, smoking and grinning beneath that Pancho Villa.

A couple walked on, a skinny looking tough guy, and a sort of pretty, short girl with blond hair and pale chicken legs. "Right here babe," said the skinny boy. His voice was out of context, full and deep, like someone important and strong. He was damn skinny though. They both were. She handed him her bag and went into the window seat. "You want this babe?" He pulled out a magazine from the bag pouch.

"Hopefully this 'babe' shit doesn't go on for seven whole hours," I said to Wheeler. Again I imagined that soccer dad, screaming and running after us, "You're ignorant! You're ignorant!"

The tough kid's chest was sort of puffed out, and he took a snarled glance around the bus before sitting down next to his babe.

"You wanna get fucked up, 'babe'?" Wheeler pulled out a pint of Jack from his sock.
"Sure, why not."

We turned towards each other and took turns drinking from the small bottle.
"Don't worry. I have reinforcements too," he said.

The driver got on the bus and closed the door. He situated himself in the seat and got on the intercom, "Afternoon folks. Thanks for choosing MegaBus. We're a bit behind schedule today, but we'll still be making stops for breaks and dinner. We'll be getting to our final destination, Minneapolis, about an hour later than planned. But don't worry, we'll leave the light on for ya." He looked into the rear view mirror and winked, as though he anticipated some laughter. However it wasn't funny, not even a little bit. Some big nut in the back killed the silence and laughed like he may explode or die from hilarity.

I hit my head lightly against the window.

Wheeler nudged my arm with his elbow. "Hey, if I get drunk enough, will you give me 10 dollars to grope hot Cheetos over there?"

"You're Ignorant."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Do This I Do That- Chapter 20

XX. Fucking Small Talk

Downtown the late afternoon sun ricocheted from building to building and the rays felt most concentrated on the top of my head and the bottom of my feet. We stood in the middle of the line to board the bus, behind two girls I recognized as my former college peers. Both were average height, but taller than me. One had mousy blond hair that blew wildly in the southbound wind. The other was brunette and chunky. Her denim shorts pinched the back of her legs, making a fold.

I'd met them, more or less, freshman year. I'd passed them on campus and in between classes. We'd waved to each other at bars. I began to sweat at the idea of engaging in small talk of any kind. I tried to hide behind Wheeler. Please don't look at me, please don't look at me, I thought to myself over and over and over again.

"Wheeler," I whispered, crouched down behind him in the line. "I know them," I pointed. "Please don't say my name."

"I wouldn't know what to call you even if I wanted to," he said, failing to adjust his tone for discretion.

They laughed to each other like little birds, and I imagined their conversation was about some bullshit social scenarios, some crappy details about their vacuous activities, or the stupid phony entanglements they considered relationships. This was going to be a long ride of hiding behind my seat. Yuck, I thought. I couldn't fathom the thought of the simple banter I'd have to partake in if they recognized me to my face. The whole garrulous production, the dialogue, the smiling. It was more precarious to me than the likely trauma of several physical endeavors. I almost thought of retreating from the entire mission just to overt chatting with these shallow ducks.

My elaborate distaste for common social interaction was intrinsically deeper than me just feeling dim for not having normal adult preoccupations to discuss. It was the idea of being identified that I hated. I could travel anywhere new, comfortably, as long as I didn't already own a formed persona. The moment someone recognized me, I became afraid of encountering them ever again. The more people who knew me or knew of me, the worse my fear became.

When I met Cait, she became an armor. I could go anywhere if she was there. She protected me. Her fearlessness was captivating, and it radiated off of her like light from a lamp. With Cait, not only was I not afraid of discussing the weather or my plans for winter break as usual, but I just knew the small conversation that I detested could never take place. She was too outlandish. She was unapproachable and impervious to the phony pretences the dialogue required. Wheeler served no similar function, and I regarded his presence more as a gaudy anchor or an un-coverable blemish than something remotely empowering.

I remember during the second semester of my freshman year in college, my immense hatred for small talk was severely affecting my grades. I'd lost points in my classes for truant attendance, a policy I always thought was complete bull shit, but could not successfully avoid. Some days I spent hours fighting with myself at the door to my building, debating on which route to class was least clustered. I wore headphones and hid the unattached cord in my pocket. What made matters worse was the size of my building. I lived in a twenty story dorm on the eighteenth floor, but could hardly force myself to take the elevator instead of the stairs.

If I was remotely tardy, I wouldn't attend class at all, specifically to avoid being looked at. I could only imagine the peril of that interruption...bumbling through desk rows and loudly retrieving my books. The professor would roll his eyes. The students would watch me move across the room. How awful! How embarrassing. I could not bear it. When I told my academic advisor about my social condition (after two missed appointments), she suggested I see a counselor.

The grad student counselor was a pretty Italian girl with olive skin and long, carefully groomed hair. She was polite, but a tad inarticulate and flushed. She spoke softly, and struggled a great deal with spouts of dry mouth between words. She had an ugly wound on her lip, caked in concealer and hid slightly by a few hanging curls of her hair. Was it a disease? Was it a blemish? Was it a cut from some domestic dispute? Perhaps it was herpes. I couldn't stop staring at it. I kept picturing her heading to the bar right after our session, or being the center of dozens of skanky poses on Facebook. She probably picked psychology as a major on a whim. She probably went to grad school because she wasn't quite sure what to do with her frivolous undergraduate degree. She probably had no fucking clue what she was going to do or who she was going to be, like everyone else I knew. She was only a few years older than I was, after all.

She flipped through a white binder full of paper. The room was like a closet with two modern desk chairs facing each other and a small side table against the wall. The window faced towards the shoreline of Lake Michigan, where beauty was inescapable, where nothing too warm or too cold could ever be imperfect, and no shade of day looked remotely dull. I watched the waves beat against the rocks while she cleared her throat and neatly sorted out her things. The water moved like music; low and subtle towards the lake and crashing unpredictably towards the shore. While she was busy setting up a tape recorder, I kept thinking about the notes and the octave jumps the water would create if it moved on scales and not sand. She tested the recorder dumbly.

"This is just a requirement from the department. Is it okay with you if I record this?"
"Sure," I said, too nervous and distracted to think it over.

She too would likely become a contribution to this progressing condition of mine, I thought. Look at that thing. That thing on her lip. I pictured myself seeing her and her lip thing in public. I'd sweat, ignore her, run away...At the very least I'd walk past her at a very fast pace. Consequently we only had 3 sessions total, even though I was recommended to see her for the remainder of the semester. I was at least a good sport for the first one, which was something.

She asked me simple questions. I nervously answered, explaining my hatred for small talk as logically as I could. I kept hearing my own voice and feeling completely crazy. The permeation of it all was reiterated with the circulating recorder. The tape moved around and around and around in the machine.

"So. You just...don't like small talk? To...anyone? You... don't like people seeing you?"
"Um yeah, not exactly. But, yeah."
"Hmmm," she said.
"Have you heard of something like this before?"
"Well...I've read about something...similar."

I hated that. This girl didn't know a goddamn thing. What was wrong with her? Not her necessarily, but with this institution? She has the professional standards to be my counselor? I could have looked up a better response on Wikipedia.

The second session went worse. She came in, set up the recorder, sifted through the binder like she'd done before, but this time she pulled out a handful of literature for me to look over.
"I got these for you. I think they may be a big help," she said.

In bold black font on a neatly folder pamphlet were the words: "12 Tips For Making Small Talk."
"Now before you say anything, I'd really just like you to read it. This may be a huge help to you. I really think so."

As crazy as I believed I may have been in session one, there was nothing crazier to me than this pamphlet. The tips were not only irrelevant, but the fact that she was so completely off base was infuriating.

'Be the first to say hello.
Think of three questions to ask before any conversation.
Stay focused.
Use names frequently.
Have interesting contributions.
Use confident body language.
Maintain eye contact.
Offer a business card, a favor, or a cold beverage.
Draw from current events and popular culture to break the ice.
Have a compliment ready to go.
Be prepared to make a courteous exit.'

I couldn't decide if I should scream furiously, or laugh hysterically. All I could do was muster the word, "Fuck."

"I know. It seems like a challenge, but a lot of introverted people get over their social fears. I think you should take it all with you, read it, and practice it in the mirror. When you wake up in the morning, practice saying 'hello'. Smile at yourself. Compliment yourself. Work with your body language. Then try it on a roommate or a professor. It will take time, but I think you have it in you. I believe in you."

I left, with little else exchanged between us.

The third and final session was...almost unmentionable. I walked in. I sat down. She spoke to me.
"Nice to see you. Have you practiced your small talk in the mirror since last week?"
I said nothing.
No response.
She cleared her throat a few more times. After a few minutes...
"Are you ready to talk?"
I remained completely silent for the duration of the session. I watched the waves crash against the rocks. I pondered over the blemish on her lip. I coughed, twice. I could hear the deft sound of the tape turning in the recorder.

Thankfully my academic advisor never followed through with her about the sessions, and consequently my fear and hatred for small talk actually became worse. I couldn't imagine the type of person who would honestly appreciate the 12 tips I'd learned from the packet. Fucking weirdos. I continued to skip class, and spent probably the accumulation of one month's time over-walking my routes.

In fact, in retrospect I could argue that any and all gaps in my education, aside from the consequently low standards of my reputable institution, could all be attributed to small's likelihood- balancing sickly on the lips of my recognizable's standards- typed up in neatly folded packets...the weather and celebrity gossip, the plans and routines, the majors and minors and part-time jobs, the bars and the drunks and the Saturday parties, the articles and elections, the wind, the fucking wind, the traffic and the train, the traffic lights and cross walks and lack of cross walks, the pieces of paper and pens and sweaters and shirts and ties and busses and carpets and tiles and windows and doors and feet, the beer brands and wine tastes and the landscapes and the tests and tests and tests, the garrulous, the deplorable, the pending, fucking small talk.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Do This I Do That- Chapter 19

XIX. Money In The Bank

We resolved between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m that discovering the true identity of Cait Finn superseded our immediate need for sleep and the mesmerizing lure of late night infomercials. Like intoxicated explorers we staggered gallantly to the foot of her door. Her bedroom- the nucleus to all that was Cait. Wheeler dramatically kicked it open and streams of aroma crept out of the breathless room. Sweet candy and cigarettes, sweat, burnt embers and ash, sex and damp sheets; all footprints of Cait's perversity. We stepped into the world of madness.

Every space from the drawers to the shelves inhabited random accumulations and grotesquely selected artifacts. In fear of encountering nudity and beyond, I'd rarely ventured into this world without the native herself. There we were, unrestrained by sobriety or integrity, sifting through her definitive junk.

Post cards upon post cards, other peoples' mail, costume accessories, water balloons, batteries of every size, razor blades, containers of apple sauce, fliers for events gone and passed by 5 years, sex toys and calendars with meaty drag queens inside, silver spoons, neckties, and a jar of dead butterflies... Each item was likely obtained through some nihilistic predicament which she'd craftily exploit or deny.

Photographs were scarce. I knew she didn't own a camera, as she told me once that "cameras were an economic luxury that made vanity portable and insecure people jealous." The photos we did find were of indiscernible value to our quest. One was of three young boys in overalls, sitting on a stoop. Another was a woman in high waisted jeans standing next to a litter of kittens. On the back it said "Hacketts: 1992." Wheeler put it in the 'possible evidence' pile on the floor.

I fell over, physically depleted in the mess. Wheeler however kept digging with vigor, destroying the meticulous chaos of the room and violently trudging through Cait's world like snow.
Flinging himself from the inner corner of the closet, he screamed, "Alas!"
I twitched.
"Wake up," he said, "I found something." He shook my foot.
"I'm resting my eyes."
"Seriously, look."
I opened my left eye and Wheeler held a crayon drawing of what appeared to be a girl on a unicorn, stomping on several cats, a man, a woman, and 3 little stick figure boys. It said "My Family: The Hacketts," in young cursive writing.
"Money in the bank," I said, half asleep. Behind my closed eyes images were already intruding my subconscious and vying for my sole attention. There was a soft wind. There was my parents backyard before me. There were worms everywhere, making the ground a vision of motion. I leapt, and Wheeler became a pigment thousands of miles away.

Hours later he crept back in. He spoke boisterously. The high pitched ring tone of his cell phone setting off in intervals like an alarm clock on snooze shattered the pattern of my dream state escape. Visions of my wormy backyard and the sensation of cool breeze on my watered eyes dissipated to black and left me once again aware of reality. I'd considered falling asleep in my bed a serious accomplishment, which usually tended to be far less likely than the odds of me sleeping on the floor. Wheeler had put a blanket over me, which was notably nice. I found him in the living room.

"What exactly are you doing?" He was sitting in the middle of the floor with my laptop in front of him amidst piles of loose leaf scraps, doodled with what appeared to be nonsense.
"Researching! Discovering!" He'd put on a snug red t-shirt of mine and was fervently typing then writing then typing. He'd constructed "Hackett Graphs" on large sheets of paper that were taped to cookie sheets and rested on the couch. The graphs had listings of hundreds of cities in Minnesota, dozens were crossed out and several segmented to sub categorized lists of names and numbers. It was 3 p.m and he'd clearly vested hours into the operation and hours of research awaited.

It was incredible to me that the accessibility of the Internet had trumped skill, privacy, and profession. Wheeler had made this project his occupation of the moment. He was determined to discover Cait, or at least the identity she'd abandoned. But then what?
"Suppose you find her parents, Wheeler. What then?"
"Aren't you curious? She's gone. Maybe if we know where she's been we can find out where she's at."
It wasn't quite logical, but it did make sense in my heart. She'd always been elusive, but a part of me had been so certain that I'd stepped into her world in some way. I alone had climbed over her wall and nestled myself into her madness. I'd become apart of her, I thought. I'd defended her. I'd loved her.

I made Wheeler a pot of coffee and we searched on. We told every Hackett we called that their daughter, Cait, was the recipient of some impromptu prize money or the chosen candidate to be on an upcoming game show. Wheeler was extremely creative with it. He told Nan Hackett in Shakopee, Minnesota that her daughter, Caitlin Hackett, had recently recovered the missing dog of a prestigious Chicago entrepreneur and was entitled to a hefty reward. "Can you verify your daughter's permanent mailing address?" He'd ask at the conclusion of whatever concoction he spat. Sometimes the call recipients hung up immediately. A few times it was evident that they were manipulating the moment to receive our fake prize. Those instances were relatively clear to us though. The calls upon calls upon calls became more than just our 'project'. It was a game. It was a mission. It was an art.

By dusk the Hackett Graphs had spread into the size of a living room rug. The idea that the family was unlisted, or simply unreal was reserved in a far corner of my brain, buried beneath the hundreds and hundreds of calls we'd made and voices we'd heard. This quest had taken on a life of it's own, and regardless of success or accuracy, we were going to narrow it down to three Hackett's, visit them, and hopefully answer the questions we devised.

The three Hackett families we narrowed it all down to were within a 50 mile radius of Metropolitan Minneapolis. In 48 hours, we expended five boxes of cereal, four packs of cigarettes, three Sharpe markers, and several posters and sheets of paper for diagramming. The lack of sleep and sunlight had created somewhat of a traumatic effect on Wheeler and I, and the godforsaken circumstances of our confinement and mental states had fused us together. I'd read about it in Psychology...people who formed some sort of romantic union after experiencing a traumatic event together, like a plane crash or a car accident. There we were, a fucking case study of that deplorable psychological accident. My repulsion for Wheeler did not necessarily waver, but between temporary insanity and apathy, our relationship was so.

We mapped out our final Hackett Graph and planned to leave the following night. Wheeler had volunteered to pay for our MegaBus tickets, which I did not contest. Not only did I oblige due to my definitive poverty, but also because I'd harbored a bit of blame towards Wheeler for this entire predicament. I couldn't necessarily afford to miss my nannying shifts, which were Thursday to Saturday that particular week, but the mission came first, I'd decided. I texted Mrs. Lesnik and told her I couldn't make it. They had others. She'd replace me. She texted me back. "That's fine. See you next week."

I'd learned a few more details about my regrettable new partner, most of which was entirely unsought. He described himself as an entrepreneur, making three quarters of his modest income as a bike taxi driver, and the rest as a considerably unsuccessful drug dealer. Regardless of the source of Wheeler's menial economic status, the tickets were purchased and the mission ensued.
He'd become sort of like a stubborn zit or a noticeable skin discoloration. He was something unplanned and unattractive, but nonetheless apart of me.

We fell asleep on my bed together after the planning subsided. I curled into the wall with my knees to my chest like an infant, and Wheeler shifted behind me, using my hip as an armrest. At one point in the night I woke from a dream sensation of falling. My knees buckled and I twisted over in a convulsive spasm. Wheeler fell off the bed and landed on the floor. "Fuck!" he screamed. He made a sullen whimpering sound before retiring back into his breathy sleep.

In the morning he made coffee and toast that was so burnt it was almost unbutterable. The bathroom door was closed and I half expected Cait to emerge from the small room, groggy and naked or boisterously drunk. It was just Wheeler though, wearing a pair of my grey sweatpants and a t-shirt he'd likely retrieved from the fortress of Cait. I sat at the kitchen table and took the crust off of the burnt toast. It was now cold and crumbled like ash in a mess on the plate.

"You're beautiful," he said. He kissed my forehead.
"Okay," I said. I ate the lousy crust and coughed out crumbs.