Enter with the mob of people. Tonight, you’re dedicated to the tiring thrill of the hunt. It’s Friday night and the club fills to capacity. Those lithe bodies stuffed into tight-fitting shirts hold many possibilities. Linger in the shadows of the corners of the darkest part of the club. Scan the place for the familiar scent of weakness. Know it well—it is the same scent that seeps through your sweaty skin. It’s the scent of desperation and tonight it glows a lurid blue under the deceiving coolness of the black light. Your eyes adjust to the darkness slowly revealing the silhouettes of undulating bodies pressed against the wall, against a pole. Attempts at conversation with people are rendered pointless by the constant boom of the bass of the music in the room. It is so loud it almost knocks the wind out of you. It doesn’t matter what you say. Before you can exchange names, you are dragged to the dance floor by a sweaty hand. You grind your pelvis into your partner to the rhythm of the music. Lips locked together mixing sweat, mints, and beer. You’re elated at the prospect of physical contact with someone other than yourself, but in the end, you find yourself dancing alone. The drunken frenzy gives way to recognition as you look down at your hands and you’re holding two bottles of Corona, one in each hand. Your unnamed partner is nowhere in sight. And you try to remember how it is that you ended up with your hands full.
Plan tomorrow’s conquest. It’s closing time now and everyone heads for the doors. Go home alone. Don’t be ashamed. No. Not you. You have a cat and she awaits your return. Sometimes that’s more than you can handle, anyway.
Avoid your parents today. Even though you told them that you’d stop for a short visit. You haven’t seen them since December and now it has been two weeks since New Year’s (Chinese New Year’s).
It’s your mother you want to avoid.
The weeks between visits are exhausting. By day you connect with one friend and another—desperate to rekindle neglected bonds brought on by a self-imposed exile.
“Where have you been?”
“For a whole year?”
You nod your head and look at your feet and make a mental note to buy new shoes. When they ask what you’ve been doing, you consciously leave out your collection of empty beer bottles lining your window ledges. But it’s not a problem, you tell yourself; it’s only Zima, cheap malt liquor. And sometimes Miller Genuine Draft. Especially MGD on those days when the kids at the school have been excessively challenging. Instead, tell your friends about the excellent manner in which you can divide your time between Art History, Biology, and English at community college and still fit in a part-time job at the school district because it’s the only place that will let you work between classes and they still pay generously over minimum wage. Thank God you’re bilingual. But don’t look Him in the eye when you do so.
Answer your phone on the first ring.
“Are you still coming?”
“Si, mamá. Ahora vengo.”
Remind yourself to screen calls. Get into your Nissan—the one your father helped you buy when you were sixteen; almost a completely different lifetime ago. Drive the two and a half miles to your parent’s house. Stop at the bank and withdraw three twenty-dollar bills. Fold them over once and place them in your front pocket, not your wallet. You don’t have time to do any shopping, so make a mental note to pick up some cat litter after dinner.
Greet your mother with a hug. She finds you at the front door, wipes her hands on her apron and extends her arms. For the first time since you left home, you notice her small frame. You see her as she is and not as you remember her: a giant force constant in your childhood. Today, she looks like the old women you see at the grocery store, alone, thumping melons for ripeness in the fruit aisle. They’re the ones that stall the checkout line looking for exact change in their small hand purses, their movements always slow and calculated. That’s not my mother, you think.
Find your place within her embrace and fall back into its comfort. The weight of it begs you to say all the things that you cannot say. But you know better than to disturb what is already understood. She is happy to see you. Feel the stabbing pain of guilt with every squeeze she gives. Tell yourself that you will visit once a week… No. Every other week… No. At least once a month.
Note the changes as you make your way through the familiar spaces of the house. The living room is still pink, but the maroon carpet is gone—replaced with tile. A French-style door fills the frame between the living room and the dining room now. The kitchen still looks the same, but the drab yellow curtains that reminded you of decaying newspaper has been replaced by cheery white ones. Find your way past the laundry room, your old bedroom, and the sewing room.
Look for your father passing time away in the back shed always sifting through the artifacts of Craftsman tools: dusty jigsaws, grinders, drills, and bandsaws. Say hello. He looks at you first then he smiles a small crack that melts away the lines on his face. Take out the three bills folded in your pocket and hand them to him with a thank you. He looks at the bills and with a gesture of dismissal with his hand, he tells you to keep it. That’s what a father is for anyway, isn’t it? Promise yourself that when you earn enough money to support yourself comfortably, you’ll pay back all the money you’ve borrowed. Turn to idle talk until dinner.
Sitting at the dining room table, fidget in your chair through dinner. You’re like a pre-teenager who’s just discovered the secrets of puberty in the darkness of the bedroom under the covers after everyone’s gone to sleep. Think of the guy in Art History class. Tall, thin with the crystal blue eyes and the crooked smile. The one you watch when you think he isn’t looking. Your obsession of the month. Do as your mother says and pass the loaf of bread. Smile as you think of him sitting next to you in class. Pass the butter, too. Watch your father come in, tired, old. He passes you and places his big calloused hand on the back of your head as he takes his place at the head of the table—a father’s show of affection to his only son. Lie to him when he asks, “any cute girls in class?” Avoid eye contact with your mother when you do. She cuts through the lie and you look away. This is a subject neither of you wishes to discuss. The parade of boys you entertain in your one-bedroom apartment is not the polite conversation to have when your mother has set meatloaf on the table. Lie again when you tell them you will visit in a couple of days.
Rush home. Byrdie jumps on you to greet you. Damn it. You forget to buy the litter! Remind yourself to buy it in the morning, but she looks at you with her big hazel eyes and you know that if cats could talk, this one would say, “meow, meow.” And that could only mean, don’t make me out to be a dirty, dirty cat.
Drive to the grocery store. It will still be open for another hour. Casually glance at the checkout guy. Notice him looking at you, too. The glances are all too obvious, you tell yourself. At the expense of a cliché, you have found it. True love at the supermarket, at last.
“You want me, don’t you?” his eyes say.
“Paper,” you reply to his question.
In the checkout counter next to yours, an old man whispers something to his wife. His hands shake as he places one hand on her shoulder. Her head automatically moves in closer to his. She looks at him in surprise and giggles. Indeed, there is love at the supermarket after all and you wonder if you’ll ever find someone to surprise and giggle with at that age when you stand at the checkout counter and fish in your coin purse for exact change.
Back at home, quickly clean out the litter box. Byrdie meows in that deep sustained moan that can only mean she’s in heat again, and you wonder if it’s time to make an appointment at the vet so that the both of you can finally be put out of your misery.
Now you proceed with your plan, content knowing every errand that cannot wait until tomorrow has been done. Your mind races through the grocery list on your refrigerator door: dried instant noodles, canned soup, a six pack of MGD—a bachelor’s dinner. Cast the thought of lists aside. There is a more important task at hand. Remember to take the beer with you into the bathroom.
Draw a hot bath. But not too hot. And while the tub fills, go to the bathroom shelf and decide between chamomile or green apple bath scents. Go with patchouli instead. Light all the candles in the bathroom. Think, I’ve got way too many candles in my bathroom. Decide on your musical selection for the evening. Decide on vinyl and not CD. That medium is too digital—cold and impersonal for your purposes tonight. Draw out your old record player, the boxy one from grammar school, the one that breaks apart into a turntable and speakers. Hook it up then sift through the hundreds of LPs on the top shelf of the closet—relics from your New Wave years. Find Black Celebration and place it on the turntable. Run to the refrigerator and pull out the last three remaining bottles of beer.
Place the needle on the vinyl record to the first song on side A. The pops and scratches on the vinyl take you back to your high school days. Your parents went away for the weekend and you snuck a boy into your bedroom. In the cool darkness of the black light, both your bodies undulated to the rhythm of the record. Sometimes it was Depeche Mode, sometimes REM, but that summer, when your parents were away for a whole month (a whole month!), it was Siouxsie and the Banshees and Concrete Blond that dominated the record player. The passion would be so intense that your guest only ever got to hear the A-side of the record, and once the needle reached the end the irregular sounds of heavy breathing and the softer licking sounds mingled with the constant tha-thump, tha-thump of the needle jumping the groove at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.
Slip out of your clothes. Test the water with your big toe and declare it perfect! Gather yourself slowly into the tub and let your body adjust to the temperature. Twist off the cap from your beer and take a swig. Feel the stresses of the day evaporate and feel your mind go blank. Now is the time to run your hands up and down your chest.
Do that again.
Slowly this time. Don’t rush. Let the mind go where it wants to go. It travels back to the night last month at the club: the thrashing bodies under the strobe light. You picked out the one you liked. You ended up at his place. No one asked for names. Your mind moves to the boy who kissed you because he wanted to know what it was like to kiss another boy. Think of the sales clerk at the department store, tall and awkward in his baggy dress clothes. You fumbled with his belt and in the end, you got a discount. Then there’s the rainy day in the school parking lot; the windows fogged up from the body heat created by you and the part-time library clerk from periodicals. You gave him your number, but he never called. These images—unsigned postcards from the libido unravel and overlap. Take a second, go under the water, bring yourself back.
The tha-thump, tha-thump of the needle indicates the end of Side A. Get out of the tub and turn the record to side B. Rush back to the tub careful to step on the puddles you left when you first got out. It will make it easier to clean up later. Turn on the hot water. The bath has turned cold.
You’ll find it difficult to get back to your previous state of mind. That’s ok. You’ll get there. Events of the day play back in slow motion. Your mind wanders back and forth. It finally lights on the movie you watched last night. Marilyn at her best—always getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Always a beauty but always lonely and sad. People cannot possibly be that lonely. Pick up your bottle of beer and make a ‘cheers’ gesture to no one in particular.
Sing along to the song from the record player. There is no mother yelling to lower the volume; only a fussy neighbor above. You haven’t met but it’s easy to communicate with just thumps and stomps on your ceiling – her floor. The worst would be to be interrupted at this moment. The rhythm is just right. With little effort, now, block out everything and everyone.
Block out your mother with her open arms and unforgiving eyes. Hope that she will one day understand. Block out your friends and their nagging questions. Block out your cat staring at you at the doorway afraid to come in. Pray that God doesn’t see you. But pray that He will forgive.
Pray that you don’t have to do this alone anymore.
Close your eyes and let yourself go.
* * *
It’s almost midnight. Collect the empty bottles from the bathroom floor. Blow out your candles. Don’t bother to cover yourself up. The record is still turning but you let it play to the end. You haven’t felt this great in a long time. The feeling is somewhat foreign, if not completely unforgotten—This is different. And different is exactly what you didn’t know you needed. Make a mental note to try this again some time next week. But buy more beer next time.
Byrdie watches you from the doorway as only cats are bound to watch. Her curiosity turns to playfulness and she is ready to pounce. The fear of the unexpected is gone from her face. She senses your mood has turned for the better and now she’s ready to play.
Pull back the curtain and let the moonlight in. The empty bottles of beer that decorate the ledges of your windows refract the light making the blue carpet glow. Byrdie jumps to catch the light. The music plays on. Sing along. The last song is almost over.