Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. Tune in every month for another installment.
I drink my coffee and stare out the window at the cars passing by on the highway. I remember the old Kerouac line: whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny automobile? It was all open roads and possibilities for that guy. A wide-eyed, down-to-earth madness that rolled from one coast to another. Football-playing kids with books of poetry by their beds. I grew up in Kerouac's America. He was my guy. One of the first things I did when I got to New York was take the train up to Columbia so that I could walk in his footsteps. I lived for his idea of what we were supposed to be. But there are no angels anymore. No more saints. No visionary catholic supplications or prayers to make to god. No more optimism. No fantastic smiles. No great west. No more cowboys or jazzmen, unless they're in a Visa commercial. I would love to go moan for man, but the credit cards would sue me and the student loan companies would put me in default. No need to go looking for Dean Moriarty, because he works for the collections department of an insurance company in Delaware. He hates his job and would quit and hit the road, but can't afford to miss a mortgage payment. And he's not really in traveling shape anymore, but about 80 pounds overweight. Too big to fail.
I turn away from the window, go back to the Sallie Mae website and finish with the electronic forms for my second-to-last deferment. After this one, I'll be coming in here to Starbucks looking for a job. I can see myself filling out the application at the wobbly table in the corner, wallowing in the glory that really never was, then sitting there with a stupid smile on my face as the 21-year-old assistant manager holds up a mirror to more than two decades of overeducated bad decisions. The goatee with the first signs of grey, crow's feet around the eyes, and the tattoos no longer anti-establishment cool, but mile markers on the road to nowhere. I never expected or even wanted my life to be a straight line, but thought that if you put the time in and paid your dues, then you wouldn't end up back in the same place you were 20 years ago.
I put away my laptop, finish the coffee and head out the door. I walk past the California Pizza Kitchen, the Chipotle and up the sidewalk toward the Target. The way the sun glistens off the minivans is spectacular, haunting. I enter through the sliding automatic doors into the fluorescent lights and cut through rows of candles, heaters, curtains, blinds, slipcovers, mirrors, humidifiers and pet supplies. I stop to ask a salesclerk about the soy milk. The man is maybe 75, thick coke-bottle glasses, splotchy face and crooked back. He should be off somewhere playing shuffleboard and bitching about the young, not spending the last years before the grand exit struggling in the belly of a big box store. It takes him 25 seconds just to walk across the aisle. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir. But do you know where the soy milk is?"
"No sir, the soy milk…."
"No sir, the soy milk."
I feel like the most bourgeois, pretentious yuppie that ever lived. Ohmygawd, you've never heard of soy milk? Didn't you read the article in Salon about the dairy industry? There's as much suffering in a cup of milk as a pound of beef! "Oh wait, sir, hold on…I think I see it right over there! Thank you!" I take off through maternity, outerwear, plus sizes, women's shoes, accessories, luggage, infant, toddler, patio furniture and into the refrigerated food section…Like a liberal in Texas, it's surrounded by chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. I take two half-gallons off the shelf and tell myself how wonderful I am for making the enlightened consumer choice, but really the soy milk is made by a subsidiary of a publicly-traded company that's owned by a conglomerate with its headquarters on a space station that controls the factories that make the chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. There is no escape from complicity when you're an American. All we can do is turn down the volume from 11 to 9.
I met Joe three months ago when I walked over to pick up some soy sauce and tampons. He was playing Fight Night on the XBOX, Ali versus Frazier. I challenged him to a fight and pursuant to Section Four of the Target employee handbook, we went back around the building to smoke some pot. Joe can be bitter and hard to take at times, but the same could be said of me and I didn't do two tours in the war then come back home and have to clean up shit on Aisle 5.
"You got a few?"
"Can you meet me back around by the fertilizer for a smoke?" he asks. "I've got to talk to you about something."
"Yeah, what's it about?"
"I got popped."
"Of what, a poor attitude?"
"And so now, as an attorney, let me get this straight…After being charged with marijuana possession, you want to go smoke marijuana while on company time and directly behind your place of employment?"
"Okay, sounds good…I'll see you back there in five."
I cut back through electronics, dog toys, placemats, candles, dishes, bowls, jewelry, watches, celebrity magazines, diet supplements and pay at the register with a credit card because there is no ATM in the area that charges less than four dollars to give us our money, then go outside and find a semi-quiet place along the wall for a cigarette. Outside of our little slice of heaven here along the highway, there's nothing else around for miles. Rachel and I live in a sprawled out, disconnected, real estate McProduct. A cheap boardroom diorama that the investors spilled coffee on as they talked about where to put the dumpsters. There're figurines of us in it somewhere. The moody existential couple struggling to find meaning in the suburban wasteland. I stare out across the parking lot at an abandoned basketball court and then into the decaying fabric of telephone poles and electric wires. Bleakness seems so cool when your life is filled with wine and purpose, but utterly romanticized bullshit when you've got no role to play or place to stand.
I toss my cig onto the sidewalk, walk around the corner to the loading dock and into a little alley with the fertilizer bags. It's like a bunker with a view of the highway and all those cars whooshing by…Whither goest thou? Joe is already there leaning up against the bags with a pipe in his hand.
"So can you believe it?"
"Yeah, they picked up that receiver."
"We're going this year."
He hands me the pipe. I take a hit and the whole area brightens from a toxic grey to an innocuous beige. "I think you still need a couple players, but you should definitely be in the playoffs."
"Playoffs was last year. Super Bowl is this year."
"Tell me something?"
"Did your neck get thicker or is it some kind of weird optical illusion because it looks like a tree trunk?"
"You should see my…"
"Now that's what I'm talking about…That's the customer service that made America great."
"America is still great."
"Damn right it is. So what happened?"
"Yeah, so I was at the train station over here and the cop came up to me and asked if he could look in my bag. I didn't know what to say."
"You didn't say that you objected to the politics of fear and the war on terror?"
"Yeah, I did, but then he told me to go fuck myself."
"Okay, good, just wanted to make sure."
"He went in my bag, found 80 bucks worth of weed and arrested me on the platform. Spent the night in county, didn't get out till seven the next night."
"They arrested you on the platform?"
"Yeah, it was fucking humiliating…Kids were pointing at me, families watching, these guys were laughing at me…"
"You tell him you were in the war?"
"What did he say?"
"That I shouldn't be smoking weed like some hippie dirtbag…"
A black face peers around from the other side of the fertilizer bags. Around 50, works here, helped me once when I was looking for peanut butter. "I knew I'd find your ass back here," he says.
"Here you go, Ray." Joe hands him the pipe.
"This is some bullshit."
"Why, what's up?" asks Joe.
"This man just came up with his boy asking me where the tennis rackets is at," Ray says. "I take him over there trying to do my job, then he started coming at me with all these questions about tennis…Tennis? Shit, I grew up in ghetto, what the fuck do I know about tennis? All he was trying to do is make himself look big in front of his boy, but the whole time his boy is looking at him like Motherfucker, I'm gonna do everything I gotta do not to be like you."
"Hey, Ray, Jerry told me that you were giving notice…" Joe says.
"Nah, I was, but we can't do it this year," he says.
"Do what?" asks Joe.
"I was going to go live with my son in Colorado," Ray says. "Help him take care of his family, but we can't do it this year. Things fell through."
"Maybe next year," I say. "It's nice out there."
"Maybe so, maybe so, that's what they say..." He takes a hit and blows it out into the sky, the smoke fading like it was never there. "Alright! Taped up, back in the game, ready to take on The Man…Gentlemen, take care. Joe, I owe."
"Yeah, no problem."
He disappears back inside.
"He seems like a cool guy."
"Try working with him every day."
"And so they charged you with possession?"
"Yeah, that's right," he says. "They sent me a letter saying that I could mail in a fine and plead guilty or show up in court and fight it…If it gets on my record, they could take away my benefits. And more than that, you know, it's like I was just being there at the train station, so now I guess it's like illegal to be."
I opine for a moment on the illegality of being, then force myself back to the matter at hand. "So let me ask you something—you didn't give him any kind of consent to say that he could search your bag? Nod your head? Mumble yes? Anything?"
"And what does your public defender say?"
"They said I make too much to get one."
"Yeah, they said that with my benefits and the money I make here, it puts me over the line. They said I'm not poor enough. I'm not indignant."
"Well, you should be…Who handled the arraignment?"
"That first hearing when they took you before the court. Who was there?"
"The PD and he wasn't that bad, but then after they said he couldn't represent me, this other lawyer came up and gave me his card."
"I called him up a couple days later and he said he'd get rid of it for two grand. I might as well just pay the fucking fine."
"Do you have the money."
"Yeah, not really. I just got my jeep fixed and I was supposed to go downtheshore in a couple weeks."
"Around AC. My brother rents a place on Long Island City once a year."
"Is it nice around there?"
"Drink beer all day, pass out, go to the clubs at night and pick up, like shooting fish in a barrel."
"So what do you want to do about this thing?"
"I want to fight it."
"You have a record? I'm just asking."
"Not for pot."
"I got in a scrap a couple years ago outside a bar on Route 7. Housed this guy."
"No, Fibbar McCools."
"They give you like a ticket or was it something else?"
"Yeah, like a traffic ticket."
"Alright, that's no big deal. Anything else, I just need to know."
"Disorderly Conduct…After the Giants won the Super Bowl, I got busted for partying outside my other brother's apartment in Trenton."
"What's that bridge say?"
"Trenton makes, the world takes."
"They still make anything there?"
"So you want to fight this thing?"
"That's what I said."
I made a promise to myself to focus only on the job search, but the world has a way of making you say yes or no. "Alright, look…I can't represent you in court because I'm not licensed in PA. But if you really want to go in there and fight it—I can help you get ready."
"Yeah, can't have our boys getting busted for nothing."
"I thought you were against war."
"I was and am."
"That's what I like about you, Neal."
"For being like a liberal homo, you're still a regular guy."
"I appreciate that."
"And smart, too."
"I could tell that you're a good lawyer just by getting high with you."
Not exactly a quote for the top of the resume, but good to hear nonetheless. Having grown up in the west and having spent most of my adult life trying to make it on the east coast—I always felt like I had to work a little harder to be taken seriously. I know it's just my own paranoia, but I always felt like people saw me as the kind of guy who hung around strip malls and got stoned behind Target.
I give him my email address, pick up my soy milk, jog to the end of the Target parking lot, step over the shrubs to get down to the dirt path that leads to the broken wood fence that surrounds our apartment complex. Twelve main buildings with hundreds of units: kind of place where you live at 19, not 39. I walk over to the mailboxes. The woman that lived in our place before us was a catalogue junky. Joan and David, J. Crew, Chadwick's of Boston, Coldwater Creek. They just keep coming. They never stop. There's no recycling program, so we can't do anything but throw them away. No matter how hard you try, you're always living in the wake of other people. I toss them in one of the dumpsters, squeeze between two cars, go up the concrete stairs and hear the scratching on the door. "Zola!" More crazy scratching. I open the door and she jumps up. "Zola girl!" We found her as a puppy abandoned behind a restaurant in the French Quarter. We originally named her NOLA as in New Orleans, but every time we told her no as in stop chewing the couch or eating our shoes, she would give us a confused look like we were saying her name. So we switched to Zola because it sounded cool, then realized it was the same name as the French writer of the disenfranchised and dispossessed.
"Is that you?"
Depending on where you live, this question is either a simple greeting or a concern that hurts your heart. "Yes, it's me, Sweety. I just need to check email." It's not a dangerous building, but not a secure one, either. I go into the hall closet that we've turned into my office. Enough room for a dining room chair, laptop, autographed picture of Johnny Cash, the monster insecurities of unemployment and the unrelenting guilt that comes from having put us in this situation. So, on the level of psychological demons, at least, I've got the corner office with the view of the Empire State Building. I check my inbox: nothing. No chain letters, no rip offs, no spam: even the guys who send out those shyster emails from Third World countries know I'm broke. I told Rachel that if she took a temporary nursing assignment in Philadelphia, then I could look for jobs in both DC and New York. I said that it would give us fluidity, be a cool adventure in the birthplace of our democracy. But after seven months of being trapped without a car on the outskirts of town, in a one-bedroom apartment with rented furniture and piss stains on the carpet, our cool democratic adventure has turned into a grinding detour through economically depressed states of weariness and isolation.
"Yeah..." I turn around in my chair. She's tall with night black hair and white skin. If she weren't a Jersey Jew, she would almost remind me of the cholas that I grew up with in Albuquerque. They always had their heads cocked at a slight angle of defiance, too.
"Did you ever get a chance to call about the credit card?"
"No, I didn't, Rachel."
"I have it all set up…I'm on top of it. I'm going to transfer them to the zero interest thing tomorrow."
"Whatever." Her whatever is a punk rock whatever.
"I promise you that we're good. It makes no difference whether I call today or tomorrow."
"I said whatever, Neal."
"What do you want me to say?"
"I don't want you to say anything. I just want you to do it so I don't have to think about it."
"I promise you that you don't have to think about it."
"I don't know."
"I just thought you'd be able to do it."
"Why, because I'm not working and you are?"
"No, because I 'd rather listen to music, go for a walk, read a book, do laundry, stick my head in the fucking oven or almost anything other than stare at a fucking credit card bill."
"I said I'd take care of it."
"We can't let them go the collectors, Neal."
"Nothing has ever gone into collection because of me."
"What do you mean by that?"
"The electric bill?"
"You threw it away!"
"After you said you paid it!"
We stop to breathe: we're good at going right to the edge, then pulling back. I get up and go into the living room and sit down at the table under the Goya print that we bought in New York several years ago. That was a good day. "I promise you that I will do it by tomorrow. I know you hate dealing with it as much as I do."
"You got a call on your cell," she says, joining me. "It was in the bedroom so I answered it."
"Did it wake you up? I'm sorry."
"No, I was up already."
"Who was it?"
"A temp agency."
"Really?" She sits down at the table with me.
"They want you to call them back."
"For an interview?"
"I don't know, they said to call," she says, wiping the tired out of her eyes. "But don't you think it would be better to use this time to find real work?"
"We need the money," I say, and knock on the four-page credit card bill lying in the middle of the table.
"But as long as we stay on top of things," she knocks back on the credit card bill. "Then we're fine."
"I'll just go down and see what they have."
"But do you really want to do that work?"
"Yeah, why not."
I knew she was going to bring up Steven…One of our friends went to law school for the sole and express purpose of doing civil rights work for the GLBT community. He couldn't get a job, so started temping in New York. After six months of being buried under discovery, he figured out that the small law firm that he thought he was working for was actually hired by a larger law firm that was defending a large corporation that was being sued with a class action for discriminating against gays and lesbians. He quit the legal profession right there and became a teacher.
"You could be working for IBM 1938 and have no idea."
"It's not gonna be IBM 1938," I say. "It's all just bankruptcy these days. It'll help with the credit card."
"Great. Fantastic. We're responsible. Would you fuck me now?"
We stand up together and I take her in my arms. Her hand in my hand, her head on my shoulder, we sway to the music that only we can hear.
"Tell me a story, Neal. I want to get away from this…"
"Yasss, right there, that's it…."
We dive into each other as we walk down black-and-white chessboard-tiled alleys, picking up speed from piazza to piazza with those wild hand signals flashing in the blurred vision of the steaming port town of our souls...
"Shit, baby," she whispers in my ear. "Naples made New York slow."
"I need to be deep in you."
"Fuck me hard, Neal."
And then we climbed those stairs by candlelight up to the roof where furious and sweating we danced above the city in the chaos and the madness of a real anarchist party going deeper and deeper into the passion and the glory until we went down into the hot kitchen of the four-star outlaw squat where our new friends made us…
"Anarchist Pizza! Anarchist Pizza!"
And there we saw the sunrise in the sweetness of creation in a come together morning of the things that the darkness could never touch…
"I love you, baby."
"I love you, too."
I was scared, but so full of myself. I thought that I was so cool. The week before we left New York City for New Orleans, I turned down a job with the legal department at Sotheby's auction house. I could have just said no thank you, but wrote them an email about injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere, the connectedness of all humanity, basically ripped off The Letter From Birmingham Jail. If you're going to go, go big. Leave it all on the field. Motivations are never 100 percent anything, but for us to pack the U-haul and leave our comfortable lives in New York for post-Katrina New Orleans was a good thing to do. It meant something. But what it didn't mean, as I have since found out, is that god was rooting for us because we did it. Or that the universe was keeping score. It's the hallmark of the minor league dreamer to expect his life to get better because he once did something decent.
I pick up the phone, call the temp agency and they immediately put me on hold. As if that weren't enough, they hit me with Coltrane's Favorite Things so that I actually enjoy it. It's how they get you. With the phone in my ear, I turn back to the computer. I have about 25 resumes out, but there are five or six that I'm counting on…Public defender offices in DC and New York, an immigrant rights office, tenant rights in Queens and the Civil Rights Guild. I'm almost a lock for the tenant rights gig because I know the guy, but can't afford to take it because the salary isn't enough to live on while paying my student loans. This is the Catch-22; you get an education so that you can do good work, but the education puts you in so much debt that you can't afford to do good work, so that you either have to remain uneducated or not do good work. In other words, dumb and selfish is the way to be. The Civil Rights Guild is my dream job. It's beyond competitive, but feels like with my Charles Dickens family history—growing up with a dad in prison, struggling to make something of myself, joining up with a gang of pickpockets in London—I might have something like an outside shot.
I set up the interview for next week, then check out one of the bar bulletins. All the jobs have to do with either forfeiture, collecting debts or working for insurance companies. I can either go after other people on behalf of large conglomerates or remain unemployed. It's either them or me. Except in this case it's more like me or me as I would be going after myself. I know that there's something metaphysically interesting going on there, but the temp job interview has taken the idealist right out of me. I Google my own name to confirm that I exist. Turns out that I do, and that I've been a big disappointment to everyone.
I go back into my email and immediately want to call out to Rachel, but she's still asleep in the bedroom from work last night. The DC public defender's office has gotten back. I networked the hell out of this one: email to an ex-professor who told me to email a former student, who told me to email a colleague, who told me to email the secretary, who told me to email a staff lawyer, who told me to email the director who asked me to submit a resume, cover letter, writing sample, law school transcript, four references and three letters of recommendation. I spent more than two weeks just getting the application together.
I take a deep breath…This would be huge. All I need is a break here. Please. Give me an interview and I'll bring it home.
It doesn't even say my name, but Dear Candidate.
I delete it. Never happened. There is nothing to learn from form-letter rejections, other than that you're not even worth three minutes to someone.
She comes over and pokes her head in. The apartment is so small that her face is in my office, her body is in the hall, and her tail is in the living room.
"You want to go to Starbucks?"
You know I do, Neal.
I throw her leash on and we head out the door. The landscape of the apartment complex is realistic in the sense that when people use the word realistic, they're just trying to bring you down. Come on, Neal, be realistic…Speed bumps, asphalt, dumpsters with subtle, yet exciting hints of dying yellow grass. We go down the dirt path littered with napkins and cigarette butts, weave around those big red Target concrete balls and then up the sidewalk to the Starbucks where I tie Zola to a chair on the patio. I go inside and stand behind a nice couple with a baby stroller. They seem well-adjusted and remind me of my friend from law school who has recently moved out to Long Island. He has a house, a family, two cars and a strangely urgent need to tell me that he's happier than he's ever been. He sent me an email last week saying that we should have kids because it mellows you out. Seems a little selfish to bring another life into the world just to be your own anti-depressant, but the email has remained with me. Our choices have left us insecure, made us wonder if we've been wrong. I get my coffee and go back outside to the table with Zola, there is such a fine line between searching and being lost…
A familiar voice breaks through the haze: "Hey, Neal?"
One of the seriously inconvenient truths of my life is that any time I've ever wanted to indulge the selfish and judgmental fool that lives inside me, someone with the fire has always come along. Nancy saw me reading Thoreau one day, sat down and started telling me about the abandoned factory that she and her friends are reclaiming in the wasteland on the edge of town. Turns out that we knew some of the same people down in New Orleans. She's in early 20's, tiny, but determined as all hell. Long brown hippie hair and punk rock tattoos on her arms. A fusion of the two, or maybe, evolution.
"What's going on?"
"I was wondering," she asks almost nervously. "Would you be willing to come out to the space and talk about the work you've done? It's still a total train wreck, but we're doing some cool things in a way."
"Only if you promise to come over for dinner," I say. "My girlfriend would love to meet you."
"Really? Thanks, man." She writes down her email address and hands it to me.
"How are things going otherwise?" I ask.
She smiles and says, "You mean besides the fact that sociopathic assholes are destroying our world?"
"Yeah, besides that."
"They're good," she says. "I actually feel positive, like some things are starting to happen…" She looks back inside at the long line, the 30 seconds of her day when she was more than just the weird girl taking too long to make somebody's latte at an end. "So, email me?"
"Thanks again, Neal."
I take a sip of my coffee and pet Zola. It's funny how your life can be mired in almost crippling self-doubt, but still somebody looks up at you like you know what's going on. I finish my coffee and we start walking back toward the apartment, the mothers with their baby strollers seeing me as a potential threat as they push their children into the safety and security of the big box store. It is true that I was once head of Mexican child porn ring back in the 70's, but it didn't have the same negative connotations as it does now, it was a much freer time. We get to the dirt path and someone has dumped a bag of kitchen garbage all over the ground: coffee filters, banana peels, spoiled vegetables, paper plates, beer cans and prescription bottles. This is where we throw Zola the ball. Sadly, it's like "our park." I don't understand how people can be so lazy, there are dumpsters in every imaginable direction. I check the prescription bottles to see if there's anything good, but it's all thyroid-type stuff. I grab a plastic bag off the ground and start to fill it up.
"DON'T EAT THAT, ZOLA!"
She has a piece of steak in her mouth that I have to rip out before she swallows the bone. She's like an animal, it's disgusting. The bag full, we climb over the fence and walk over to check the mail: Abercrombie and Fitch, Restoration Hardware, Urban Outfitters and Victoria's Secret. I flip through the Victoria's Secret as we walk across the parking lot, throw everything into the dumpster, then go upstairs. She's sitting at the table in her black nursing scrubs, black hair matching the background of the Goya. I bend down to kiss her. "Hey, sweet, how was work last night?"
"It was good."
"Are you wiped?" They just switched her on to nights.
"No, I'm starting to get used to it."
"I'm sorry," I say. "It's got to be hard."
"No, it's really not bad," she says. "I like the other nurses, but I need to say something…"
"I don't want to nag you..."
"…but you left all the lights on again."
"Oh, I didn't mean to." I go around checking all the lights—unintentionally, as far as I can tell—pausing too long to flip the last one on and off.
She rolls her big black eyes. "Don't be a frickin' smart ass, Neal."
"I wasn't being a smart ass."
"You were being a smart ass."
"Okay, maybe five percent smart ass, but the rest of it was earnest. And that five percent is going to be there no matter what…"
" And how grateful we all are for that," she says. "If it wasn't for your brilliant smartassness, then we would all be in darkness. In fact, you're like a Prometheus who's brought back the smartass flame so that the rest of us can live in the light—light, of course, which you don't have to turn off, because everyone owes you so much. In fact, we're all so thankful for your sacrifice that we would like…"
"I get it, okay?"
"It's a waste of energy," she says, sipping her coffee. "We have to take care of the things that we can control."
"I get it."
"It's important to me."
"It's important to me, too."
"Then why do I have to keep reminding you?" she says. "This really isn't a conversation that I want to keep having."
"Then don't keep having it."
"I've had to remind you like four times."
"You haven't had to remind me four times."
"I don't know what's worse?"
"Actually reminding you or having to prove that I've reminded you, when both are maximally irritating and I don't want to do either."
I tell myself that she's been up all night and is probably on less than five hours sleep and that I need to be generous, even though there's no way she's ever told me four times. "Okay, Rachel, I really do understand and promise that you'll never have to tell me again. Now let's just relax and leave it there…I know you're overtired," and begin to speak slowly…"And that right now isn't really the best time to talk about these kinds of things, so let's just take a step back, chill, and enjoy our coffee." She looks at me with female loathing. I might as well have just said: Now listen, hon, I know you just got your period, so you're going to be a little moody…
"You know, Neal, I really want to call you a moron," she says. "But I'm not going to."
"Thanks for that, muffin."
"So, just try and understand that this isn't about how tired you think I may or may not be, but about having respect and caring about something other than just yourself."
"Oh, come on, don't turn it into that, Rachel."
"When is it not about that?" she says. "It's always about that."
"Yeah, maybe on some grand level," I say. "But on a smaller level it's just about me wanting get the hell out of that closet and go outside."
"And then I come home and the peanut butter's out…"
"Oh, there's no peanut butter out."
"Oh, yes there was peanut butter out…"
"Oh yeah, what about you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You leave your tampons in the bathroom trash," I say. "Zola gets them out and I have to pick them up. You think that's fun for me? Where's my respect?"
"Oh, I didn't tell you?"
"We had a meeting last week and decided not to show you any more respect," she says, petting Zola. "I should have said something, but I didn't have enough respect for you to take the time, sort of like you with the lights."
"You leave tampons."
"Uggh, if you could just please turn off the lights," she says. "You know it's not good for the environment."
"Well, just for the environmental record," I say. "I was out there picking up trash right now."
She sort of bites her lip. "Yeah…"
"And I bet you a million bucks that you were out there bitching to yourself about how people are so lazy and selfish?"
"Yes," I say. "Every time I had to bend over to pick something up."
"But then you can't take one ounce of criticism for leaving on the lights?"
"It's not the same thing?"
"How's it not the same thing?"
"I don't know."
"And then there's the…"
"What, tell me."
"It's just the electric bill," she says like she doesn't want to say it. "I just don't want to give them any more money than I have to."
"I'm going to just let that go," I say."Because unlike some people in this apartment, I tend to see things in more generous and communal terms."
"Yes, thank you."
"But I thought it was OUR money and that WE were both paying the soul-sucking electric bill, honey? I thought that that's something we did together?"
"And you are a shining example to the revolution."
"Don't shining example me, Rachel. I'm unemployed. I get it. You're the badass. You pay the bills."
"Yes, Neal. I think you're a loser. That's why I've made you my life."
"Well, maybe you're tired of supporting me or something?"
"Oh, puhleeese, do we really have to do the whole fragile male ego thing where I have to constantly walk on eggshells because I'm afraid that I might offend you?" She puts on a killingly patronizing voice. "Oh, please, forgive me, Neal, for asking you to turn off the lights when you leave the apartment. I just don't know what's wrong with me. And oh yes, also please forgive me for using the first person instead of the third person when talking about stupid fucking bills. Here we go: WE don't want to pay the soul-sucking utility companies any more money than WE have to…There, okay? Do WE feel better?"
"Oh yeah, right. Straight from the diva's mouth."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're permanently cranky now," I say. "I'm the one who has to constantly walk on eggshells..."
"It's because I only get like four hours sleep," she says. "Everything is screwed up right now."
"I know it, goddamnit," I say. "I know it. I know it."
"I don't want to be upset all the time."
"You're not upset."
"I am upset. I can feel myself being upset and I don't want to be upset."
"Yeah, your voice gets higher when you get upset."
"My voice doesn't get higher when I get upset."
"I didn't mean anything…"
"Oh, okay," and does her dumb man voice of me. "Uhh, hey, dude…My name's fuckin' Neal de la Vega, dude, and I'm such a fuckin' badass rebel, dude, that I can't even fuckin' turn the lights off to save the fuckin' environment, dude. Fuckin' right on, dude."
"Oh, you want to play hardball? I was trying to be nice, but I'll play hardball." And I do my high-pitched, Jersey chick voice of her. "Uh, oh yeah, like hey.." and fake some gum chewing. "My name's Rachel Zelnick and like oh yeah, hey… I think like I'm the totally coolest chick…but really I'm an uptight bitch."
"Are we actually talking to each other in voices right now?"
"Yes, we are."
"Can we stop doing that please?"
"Yes, we can."
"Will you fuck me now?"
"Yes, I will."
She grabs me by my black t-shirt and pulls me down to the floor. "Get us the fuck out of here, baby."
I find you on the steps of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in a soft dress that kisses your knees and wraps around your thighs. We hold each other's hands and go slowly inside as the sun breaks through stained glass, light dancing off your dark eyes in our forever conversation in the corner of that cool art deco bar…You in your long black gloves, touching my face, moving through the landscape of sad masks and wild murals, dying dreamers and burning hearts. As I lay you back down again, I feel your body flow a prayer into mine, that in the darkness we'll find our way back home, together, in the fire of each other. I can feel you give me this hope, that I am still the boy drinking whiskey at the bar, who would either find a way or make one.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.