I can’t help but think of Sarah while I’m listening to the album Out of Time by R.E.M. It came out last month, and I’ve listened to it over and over. Sarah and I listened to the Green and Document albums repeatedly in high school in my car’s Sparkomatic tape player, laughing hysterically when trying to figure out the words to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” I roll over on my bed in my dorm and stare at the glow of the black candle on my bedside table made from plastic crates. It’s late April and one of those first warmish evenings where you can open the window and get just the right amount of breeze and breathe in green potential.
In our freshman year of high school, Sarah and I became best friends. I haven’t talked to her for several months. Of course it’s because of a guy, but not because we both wanted the attentions of the same one. She couldn’t handle the drama that was my first relationship, Charlie Rheinhardt. She just didn’t understand what it’s like to love someone so much that when they hurt you, you realize how much more you love them. I feel like she deserted me when I needed her most, but I’m sick of myself, too, so I get it.
After playing with the candle wax for a while, pouring it onto my fingers, letting it cool and then peeling it off, I jump up from my unmade bed and turn the lights on. Enough. I drag my hot pink phone over to my dresser and call my friend Julie, who lives in a dorm across campus.
“Julie? It’s Jane. What are you doing tonight?”
“Going out, I guess. Wanna come?”
“Sure. Blue Note?”
“Yeah. I’ll bring my bottle of Absolut so we can pre-party,” she says.
“Awesome!” I say.
I put on my black babydoll dress over black tights, then red lipstick and black eyeliner. This is my downtown look, what I usually wear when I go to the bars. Most of the crowd is alternative, and it’s my scene. I worry that I don’t look alternative enough when I go downtown, but I’m not gonna dye my hair blue or anything. I’d feel like such a poser, and my parents would probably stop helping with my tuition if I did. I figure my mostly-black outfit is good enough, and it will help me find that cool, awesome boyfriend I’ve been looking for. I have to be careful, though, since there are so many creeps out there. After all, I managed to find the biggest one on the face of the planet, the fucker.
Charlie and I started dating in the spring of my senior year, and I thought he was so cool and handsome, with his Doc Martens and his full-lipped smile. Being a couple of years older than me, he seemed more mature than other guys from school. He was my first boyfriend, and my first, well, lover. We dated until four months ago, when I broke up with him because – god, for so many reasons. I pull another beer out of my mini-fridge and focus on the night ahead. Hopefully I’ll find someone to hook up with, to have a little fun with, to forget myself with and to undo my past with Charlie.
Julie and I stand at the doors outside the Blue Note, waiting for the other friends she’s invited, Tessa and Dale. We’ve already had two vodka and lemonades (heavy on the vodka) since we can’t drink at the Blue Note. We’ll most likely find someone who is having an afterparty so we can drink more after the bars close. It sucks to be a minor because your buzz always wears off before closing time unless you’re lucky enough to sneak drinks from someone. Tonight, all I want to do is to find oblivion and a guy. Tessa and Dale arrive and give a cool “Hey,” barely looking at either of us. Tessa has dyed black hair styled Robert Smith fashion, and Dale has a buzz cut. And of course they are wearing combinations of black clothing, combat boots and various chains and spikes. They must stock up on black lipstick at Halloween. I immediately feel boring and common, and I hate that they’re here.
“I like your hair,” I say to Tessa. “How long does it take you to style it?”
She shoots me a shitty look and says, “It doesn’t.” She then walks to the bouncer and hands him her ID.
When it’s my turn, I show the bouncer my ID, and he brands my hands with the giant “NO” stamp. The dance floor is empty and only a few souls are gathered at the bar. An old guy with a graying beard and a flannel shirt sits hunkered over the bar with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon; his drink of choice is the only thing he has in common with the rest of the college crowd. One group of frat boys surrounds a table, one apparently telling a story as he gestures toward his madras-plaid crotch, the rest laughing and high-fiving.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m in college, other than the fact that college is what you are supposed to do after high school. I’m in journalism school, and although I like to write, I don’t want to be a journalist. I really want to be a novelist. Other than that, I just really don’t know what to do or what to expect in my future.
Julie, Tessa, and Dale and I stand around as the Blue Note starts to sort of fill up. The band that will be playing, Say Anything, is sort of a local favorite, since they mostly do alternative songs, and no other local band has an electronic keyboard. We love when they play the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” – the crowd slowly sinks to the floor when they sing the slower “down, down, down” part, and then we pop back up when the music gets fast again. The deejay is playing some Depeche Mode remixes as we wait for the band to start.
“I’ve been a fan of the Cure since Head on the Door came out,” Tessa is saying when I tune back into the conversation. I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. She really wants us to know how cool she is. The thing is, if you adopt the Robert Smith look and like his music and blend in with that crowd, how “alternative” are you? Aren’t you just conforming to a group?
“Oh, wow,” says Julie. “That came out like when we were in grade school, right?”
“Yeah,” says Tessa as she looks around the club.
“I discovered Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me when it came out, and I fucking love it,” says Julie.
“Well, that album is kinda mainstream, but it’s pretty good. I love Disintegration, though. It’s like Robert Smith took a look into my soul and wrote an album,” says Tessa.
“I feel like the spiderman when I get high,” says Dale.
Hmm. I figure she smokes pot, for sure, because so many people do, but I wonder if she does anything else. I sort of can’t imagine that hard drugs are around me, or where you would even get them. These two are feeling cool and superior because their alternativeness is more hardcore than mine. I decide to find out if they are full of shit or for real.
“What kind of shit do you do?” I ask Dale.
She looks at me from the side of her black-rimmed eyes, then looks back at the other side of the room. “Why do you want to know? Fancy a taste of something new?”
Tessa snorts and digs out a pack of Marlboro Lights. I’m surprised they aren’t Camels. And she has a Bic lighter instead of a Zappo. How not cool, I think.
“I’ve got some pot right now, might go smoke in the bathroom in a minute. I like to do whatever I can whenever I can get my hands on it. Heroin is good,” she says.
“How often do you get a hold of heroin?” I ask.
“Couple of times a month. My dealer says it’s getting hotter around here and he should be able to get it more often. Why? You wanna try some? My dealer is right over there.”
She points to a nondescript guy in khakis with a hole in one knee, Converse, and a t-shirt hanging out with two guys in similar clothing. They are drinking beer and surveying the room. I’d never have guessed he was a dealer. Shouldn’t a drug dealer be creepy, with stringy hair and ratty clothes? Shouldn’t he look strung out and shifty-eyed? Maybe Dale is lying, trying to make fun of me.
“Nah,” I say, trying to look nonchalant, as if I’m too cool to even want drugs.
We take turns going to the bathroom to take sneaky swigs from Tessa’s flask. Two hours later, I’m dancing to the band’s music, trying to capture the attention of this hot guy that I think has been checking me out. I can’t tell, though, but I kind of don’t care. I’m not gonna wait for some Prince Charming – my prince will probably never someday come, and I’d rather a stranger come (haha).
I dance my way over to this guy in his Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, then take his drink and down it while smiling at him.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asks.
At first I think “oh, shit,” but then I see a twinkle behind his long eyelashes when he flicks his sandy blond hair off his forehead.
“Jane,” I say.
We dance, and since it’s almost closing time, I’m hoping he’ll ask me to go party somewhere after. I don’t know what my friends are going to do, but I’m not going home early tonight. I’m sure of it. The dreaded moment arrives – the “ugly lights” come on for last call. Tom still seems cute, and he seems to like me.
“What are you doing now?” he asks.
“I dunno,” I say.
“My friends and I usually hang out at my apartment. Wanna come?”
“I’d love to!” Shit. “I mean, sure, that would be cool,” I say, toeing the cigarette-butt and beer covered floor with the tip of my shoe.
I don’t check in with Julie and the Dark Duo. Tom leads me out by the hand, both of us staggering and laughing at each other. His friends, whose names I learn are Gary, Larry, and Jason, pile into Tom’s powder blue Ford Escort, and we go to his apartment off East University. The carpet is shag, the furniture is brown and rust, and the refrigerator is avocado green. I ask Tom if he’s in school.
“Nope. Went to school last year but hated it. I work now,” he says.
“Cool. I’m dropping out, too,” I lie. “College sucks.”
“Wanna play quarters?” Jason asks.
“Fuck, yeah” says Gary or Larry.
Between shots, I take in the fake wood paneling and think how much like my childhood home this is, or at least how it looked when I was a kid. It occurs to me that this might be my fate if I’m not a successful journalist – living in shitty apartments with two-decades old wallpaper for the rest of my life. Gary or Larry offers me his joint, and I take a hit on what I think must be some powerful weed, because I’m feeling higher than I’ve felt before. At least I think so. I have only really smoked pot once before, and all I could do was not talk. I take another hit, hoping this will make me feel less out of place.
It takes his friends forever to leave; when they do, Tom and I start making out. Soon, he’s under my shirt, and I stroke his stomach and then his thighs. I’m on top of him, and I take off my dress. For the first time since we fell on the couch together, he makes eye contact with me, and I see hesitation.
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I want to.”
“Okay,” he says.
I don’t know how to read his response, but I figure guys are always willing and able. I don’t know what to do, though. I’m afraid I look stupid; I’m just hovering above him, trying to look sexy, hoping my stomach isn’t rolling over my underwear too much. I decide to take off his shirt and my bra. I’m only in my underwear now, and he reaches for my back and draws me down to kiss him. I can feel my not-firm breasts dangling, and I kind of want to die a little. I don’t really want to be on top, but Tom hasn’t tried to be on top. Maybe this is what he likes, or maybe he’s drunker than I am.
“Do you want to do this?” he asks.
“Yeah. Raise up,” I say.
I take off his jeans and boxers and then stand up to take off my underwear. Before I climb back on the couch, he sits up.
“I don’t think this is my night,” he says. “I can’t even remember your name.”
“It’s Jane,” I say. “So you don’t want to do it?”
“I’m not sure. I’m so fucked up I can’t even move.”
“Oh,” I say. To help things along, I reach down and start to put his dick inside me. I’m surprised by my courage, even if it is from the alcohol and pot. I feel sort of powerful. Tom pushes me away before it’s really in, and I fall backwards off the couch, hitting my shoulder on the coffee table, stunned. I try to read his face in the half-dark.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I said not tonight, okay?”
“Oh,” I say, puzzled.
“I should take you home. Where d’ya live?”
I tell him I can walk back to my dorm and take off to avoid more awkwardness. As I walk, I try to figure out where I went wrong. He seemed to want to, and he was hard the whole time. How was I supposed to know? Maybe he just didn’t like me. Maybe he was grossed out by my naked body. I thought I was giving him what he and every guy wants. I guess he just didn’t want me.
Upstairs in my room, I get a huge glass of water and heat up some leftover macaroni and cheese. I try to push the entire night out of my mind. I decide to fold up this story into a little triangle like the notes Sarah and I used to pass to each other, tuck it away in the corner of my brain and forget about it.
I wish I could talk to Sarah, but it all just got too messed up and balled up into a big twisted yarny knot that seems permanently tangled. I feel like I’ve lost my anchor because that bastard Charlie Rheinhardt blasted our friendship apart like a stick of dynamite, leaving us separated, smaller than we once were, rougher, misshapen. I couldn’t make us one inseparable piece again, even if I tried.
Sarah hated Charlie because she was jealous that I had a boyfriend and she didn’t, but in a corner of my soul, I now that just isn’t true. Here’s the deal: last summer, I lost my virginity to Charlie, and when I told her the details, Sarah freaked out and said he raped me, but I refused to believe it. He explained that he really didn’t think I was serious about not wanting to, so it was a misunderstanding. I thought that must be true, and we were a couple for several more months. We fought a lot, though. Having a long distance relationship was hard, and we fought about him not seeming to want to see me very much. I’d call his apartment late at night and he wouldn’t be home, and I was afraid he was with other girls. When I brought it up to him once, his face went cold, and then he smiled and said, “Wouldn’t that just kill you?” He swore he was joking, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but I always wondered.
I tested the limits of Sarah’s friendship. I’d call her crying, and I’d tell her Charlie’s latest cruelty, and she would tell me all of the right things – that I deserved better, that he wasn’t ever going to change, and that I’d be better off without him. One night, after he came to Columbia to visit me, and I saw him dancing with another girl at Shattered (and I mean dancing as in almost fucking on the dance floor), I flipped out and screamed at him in the bar. The nice staff there removed us, and I walked back to my dorm alone. Wrecked, I called Sarah and told her what happened as I sobbed.
When I finally came back up for air, she said, “Why are you still with him? You come to me wanting advice, or whatever, and all I can do is sympathize. I feel bad for you, but I can’t listen to you allowing yourself to be abused. When you finally figure out that he’s destroying you, give me a call.”
I need her advice now, but I can’t call her. I’m too much of a mess. Lying in my messy bed, I listen to “Losing My Religion.” Tom’s guarded, darkened face keeps coming back to me. I realize I’m no better than Charlie, and I get up to have one more beer. I’ll be bruised in the morning.
Tracey K. Parker is a college English instructor with a PhD in English from the University of Arkansas. Her work has been published in Control Literary Magazine, The Cooper Street Journal, and PRISM in addition to her published academic work. She is also a co-editor for Control Literary Magazine. She lives in Springfield, Missouri in the United States.