NOTE: I don’t usually post my non-ABDL work here, for obvious reasons. I’m making this an exception. It’s a story I wrote for a contest which I did not win and I have no intention of trying to get it published elsewhere. Also, it seems like a timely read, given that 2010 is nearly upon us. So enjoy.
“I feel cheated,” I tell Tony as we walk toward downtown. “We were supposed to have flying cars by now.”
It’s January 4, 2010, the first Monday of the New Year. As children of the 1980s and 90s, we knew that we’d hit 2010 before we hit 30. But the year still carried an unmistakable whiff of the future. I was expecting flying cars and space colonies and laser guns and robots to do my bidding. Now that the future is finally here, I feel sorely disappointed.
“I guess,” Tony says. “But I’m just glad we made it this far, ya know?”
He’s wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood down. It puts me and my heavy coat to shame. Part of me wants to tough it out, to be like Tony and wear just a sweatshirt on a 37-degree day. But I know I’ll get cold or sick if I try. I always do.
“Amen,” I say, but I’m really not happy to be here. It’s cold, too cold to be walking, really, and ridiculous in light of the fact that we both have cars. Tony wanted to give it a try for old time’s sake. I felt I owed him that, so I agreed to walk with him downtown to Finn’s for lunch. It was a trip we took often back in the old days.
We pass the elementary school we both attended, the out-of-service train tracks, the white corner house that’s been in need of a paint job since we were in the seventh grade. I can tell which streets we’re on without even looking at the signs. Inwood, Peartree, Marshall, Broad. One block marks the spot where a pair of red-headed twins ambushed me with snowballs when I was ten; another is where I saw my first car wreck. I remember so much it’s like I never left at all.
“You miss your kids?” Tony asks me.
“My kids?” I say. I give him a look like he’s nuts before I realize he means my students. Then I feel stupid about it. “Not really. Why?”
“I miss mine,” he says.
Tony teaches remedial English at the middle school. I have no idea how he does it. I get frustrated trying to teach American lit to class full of normal eleventh-graders. Twelve and thirteen-year-olds with learning and behavioral issues have got to be a hundred times worse.
Then again, Tony’s always been a bit of a mystery. He runs rain or shine, he still reads comic books and he can put away slice after slice of pizza without gaining weight. And, of course, he never left town.
“It’s weird,” Tony acknowledges. “But there’s a couple of them I’m able to reach and I get so much from that.”
“I’ll bet you do,” I say suggestively.
Tony laughs and shakes his head. Pedophilia jokes are an important part of our friendship.
It’s usually about a 15-minute walk from our neighborhood to downtown, but we’re going slowly because of all the ice on the sidewalks. It snowed last week and the snow has been melting and refreezing and melting and refreezing ever since. And when the last of the ice seems like it will finally melt, it will probably snow again. New Jersey winters are notorious for trying one’s patience.
“Tony,” I say as we pass the gas station. It’s a Shell station now, but it used to be a Gulf. “Are we cool?”
Now he looks at me like I’m the one who’s nuts.
“About the other night?” I say.
A few nights ago, at a New Year’s party, I kissed Tony’s girlfriend. I more than kissed her, actually. My hands were on her hips, my fingers inched toward her butt and my tongue found refuge in her mouth for a couple of seconds before she pushed me away. The strange thing is I don’t even like Marybeth. She was a grade behind us in school and I always felt like she was horning in on our scene. Plus, she was entirely too needy. Every time the three of us hung out, all I heard was “Tony, get me a Coke?” or “Tony, what do you think of this shirt?” or “Tony, can we go to NYC this weekend?”
Marybeth didn’t like me either. She gave out this vibe that I was only something she put up with because of her man. Tony confirmed this about six months back, during another walk.
“She thinks you’re too negative,” he said. “And kinda pretentious. And no fun to be around.”
“I knew it,” I grumbled. “She…”
“Listen, forget I told you that, OK? I don’t want you guys fighting.”
I told him OK, but I didn’t forget.
“Forget it,” Tony says again, half a year later.
“I just want you to know, I didn’t mean anything by it,” I tell him. “I was drunk. Like really drunk.”
“Scott, don’t worry about it,” Tony says.
I tell him OK, but I’ll continue to worry.
When I left, I was reasonably sure I would not be coming back. I’d stop by to visit my folks and hang out with friends once in a blue moon, but that was it. My hometown had become an albatross around my neck. I was tired of running into the same faces at the movies or at Walgreen’s or at Finn’s. I hated going to the library and remembering the time I almost wet my pants when someone snuck up behind me or going to the park and thinking back to the beer-bottle glass I cut myself on. I wanted a new life, not a perpetual reminder of the one I had lived. So while most of my high school class opted for Rutgers or the community college or the workforce, I hightailed it to a small liberal arts college downstate and never looked back.
“Man, I can’t believe you’re leaving,” Tony said one day not long after graduation. We were free men. Roaming downtown as a high school graduate should have felt liberating to me, but it didn’t.
“I can’t believe you’re not,” I replied.
“Some day,” Tony told me, but I knew even then this was not true. He was here to stay.
Up until our junior year, I had simply taken for granted that Tony shared my desire to get away. We had both endured rejection by girls, lackluster summer jobs and cruel and incompetent teachers. What’s more, we had commiserated. Every so often, between reflecting on the Yankees’ World Series hopes, mocking our principal’s self-important swagger or rating Nicole Barrino’s breasts, one of us would lay into the town – the sameness, the blandness, the lack of anything exciting or new – and the other would nod approvingly. Hearing that Tony was going to stay, wanted to stay, felt like betrayal to me.
“Rutgers is the only place offering me scholarship money,” he rationalized. “Besides, it’s not that bad.”
“Oh yes it is,” I protested.
“I don’t know, Scott,” he said. “I mean, yeah, I get sick of it sometimes, but everything I know is right here.”
Four years later, when he landed a teaching job with the local school system, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. I wanted to be happy for his sake, but I kept seeing Tony at 30, at 40, married to Marybeth, losing his hair, watching everyone around him move on, trying to hang in there, pretending that he wasn’t really stuck.
“You really lucked out,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he replied, grinning like he just won the lottery.
We’re on Broad Street now, out of the residential neighborhood and onto a mostly commercial strip. There’s a bank and a dry cleaner and a pizza parlor and space for rent and, eventually, another bank. Banks and dollar stores, it’s amazing how many of both of them can be found here.
“Is she pissed at me?” I ask. I’m still thinking about Marybeth, trying to figure out why I kissed her. It isn’t that she’s bad-looking – she’s a blue-eyed brunette with good skin – it’s that she’s been with Tony for years and how could I do that to one of my oldest friends?
“What do you think?” Tony says.
“She’ll get over it,” he assures me.
I hear an approaching siren and I ask Tony what he did now. Crime jokes are another important part of our friendship. But before he can offer any kind of reply, an emergency vehicle races past us. It’s an ambulance rather than a police car and I feel slightly stupid again.
“Another one bites the dust,” I say.
Tony shakes his head. “Scott, come on,” he says.
I bite my lip. I guess now that the future’s here, some things just aren’t funny anymore.
The call came right as I was easing myself into my first teaching job. It was a Saturday evening and I’d just settled in for the night. I had my feet up on a second-hand coffee table and I was using a stack of newly graded papers as an armrest. When the phone rang, I didn’t bother turning off the TV. I just lowered the volume and hoped whoever was calling me didn’t have anything important to say. Two minutes later, the TV was off and I was on my feet, pacing around my apartment and muttering “Cancer? What do you mean, cancer?” and “Oh God!” and trying not to panic.
Mom was sick. It was treatable, thank God, but she would need some looking-after. Dad worked, we weren’t that close to the neighbors and my aunts and uncles weren’t in dropping-by distance. That left me. I wasn’t in dropping-by distance either, but I didn’t have a family or a mortgage tying me down. All I had was a job and a lot of pride to swallow. And in the end, I cared about my mother more than I hated my hometown.
Back in my parents’ home, I played nursemaid. I shuffled Mom to and from doctors and clinics. I kept track of what she ate and drank and how many hours she slept. I asked her constantly how she was feeling or if she needed anything. Some nights, I cried, as much for my own sake as for her’s. I felt like we were trapped in an elevator together, going down, down, down.
Throughout all of this, Mom managed to be remarkably nonchalant and self-effacing. She often dismissed my offers to bring her things with a flick of a wrist and yelled, on more than one occasion, that she was not an invalid. “It will pass,” she told me. “This is nothing compared to what my Uncle Morris went through. They took his stomach, the poor man.”
To this day, I don’t know whether Mom was stubborn or ignorant, putting up a brave front or supremely confident in the state of modern medicine. But regardless of what drove her intuition, she proved to be correct. She did get better. And without having to take care of her, I got worse. I slept in til nearly noon and spent hours re-reading old books. I stopped shaving and took all my meals at home. I doubted I said more than 25 words in a day to anyone.
“You know, Scott,” Mom told me one evening over vegetable soup. “I hear Mrs. Horschfeld is retiring.”
I nodded. Mrs. Horschfeld was a bloated, silver-haired relic of an English teacher at the high school. I avoided being in any of her classes, but I’d heard my share of horror stories. She was forgetful and capricious and mean, exactly the sort of teacher I hoped I’d never become. She was also at least 65, which made news of her mid-year retirement no surprise.
“Maybe you can fill her shoes,” Mom suggested.
I nearly spat out my soup. Return to the high school?!
“No way,” I said.
“Why not?” Mom asked.
I was about to tell her that I didn’t want to, that I was holding out for something better. Then it hit me: I was in my early 20s, unemployed, mostly friendless and living with my parents. Anything would be something better.
“Job might do you some good,” Dad added.
My father is not a talker. A businessman, he is content to let others talk until their tongues tired before he said his piece. It gave his words that much more weight. So when he said that a job might do me some good, I took it as an order. Within days, I cleaned myself up and interviewed for the pending vacancy.
That was four years ago. Ever year, I tell myself that I’m going to save up some money and move away when the right opportunity comes along. And every year something gets in my way: unexpected car repairs, another district filling the position I was after, Mom having a relapse scare. It never seems to end.
We’re getting close to Finn’s. The ice has been cleared from the downtown sidewalks and cars line either side of the street in 2-hour spaces. I can already make out the familiar emerald green awning. I can already picture the cakes in the display case as we walk to our table.
“What would you do if this place closes?” I ask.
“I’d be crushed,” Tony says. “Devastated, even.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You might have to go somewhere good for once.”
“Kidding,” I say.
I’m only half-truthful here. To a teenager, Finn’s is perfect. There’s a big menu, the prices are reasonable and you can sometimes watch sports on the TV at the bar. It wasn’t until I got downstate that I began to see my old standby as mediocre. It was a notion I resisted at first, but exposure to lumpia and udon and authentic-style tacos meant diner fare and a few Irish specialties weren’t going to cut it any more. I still eat at Finn’s every now and then, even when I’m not with Tony, but I don’t enjoy it much. It’s become passable, just like the rest of the town.
We’re greeted by a smiling blonde, given menus and shown to a side table with a Notre Dame emblem hanging above us on the wall. Tony takes a quick peak at his menu, sets it down and begins rubbing his hands together.
“I’m feeling a Finnburger,” he says. “Maybe two.”
“Go for it,” I say.
“And we both know what you’re getting.”
The past few years, I rarely left Finn’s without ordering a Reuben. I don’t know how it became my favorite or why, but I liked them. The Reuben was the one thing I didn’t feel was better anywhere else.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I may not be feeling a Reuben.”
Actually, I could go for a Reuben. Thinking about melty cheese and Russian dressing makes my stomach growl. But a Reuben somehow feels wrong to me. It feels like a trap.
“Scott?” Tony asks with mock-seriousness. “Are you off your meds?”
“You know what?” I say. “It’s 20-freakin-10. New year, new sandwich. I’m going to go with a turkey melt.”
Tony shrugs. He is not one to second-guess me. Feeling confident, I place my order. But then everything starts feeling wrong. Switching sandwiches was an impulsive move and I’m not one to do for the sake of doing. Reason rules my life. Where’s the reason in a turkey melt?
When the food comes, Tony digs into his burger, pausing between big bites to gulp Coke and dab his lips with a napkin. I nibble cautiously at my melt, my tongue searching for flavor that isn’t there. It’s not terrible, but it’s not anything special either. I add it to my ever-growing list of disappointments.
Once, when we were in the seventh grade, we’d gotten into a game of half-court basketball in gym class. Tony was on my team and the team we were facing had the Nyerand twins, the same pair of red-headed devils who had pelted me with snowballs a few years earlier. They had grown older and meaner and I was still pudgy and short. About 10 minutes into our game, they decided to turn basketball into keep-away.
Brandon Nyerand had possession and stood dribbling at the free-throw line. He seemed poised to shoot and I moved in to attempt a block. As soon as he saw me coming, he turned and lobbed the ball over my head to his brother, Brendan. Frustrated, I turned to engage Brendan, who quickly passed back to Brandon.
“Come and get it,” Brandon sneered.
“Yeah, Scott,” one of my teammates called. “Get the ball already.”
I didn’t have to turn around to know they were standing back and watching this spectacle with amused grins and would not lift a finger to help me. Huffing, I reached again for the ball and let out a tortured “ungh!” as Brandon lifted it out of reach. He cackled, pivoted, and hurled it back toward his brother.
This time, however, Brendan didn’t get to lay hands on it. Tony effortlessly intercepted the pass, took it back out and scored an easy layup. The twins gave him an angry look for ruining their fun.
“What’d you do that for, you fag?” Brendan hissed.
Tony smiled and shrugged. His surprise layup had evened the score and the rest of our team decided to rejoin the game. We ended up playing to a narrow victory. When it was over, our teammates said “good game” and clapped Tony on the back. But I couldn’t look at him at all.