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Ask the passengers, p.5
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       Ask the Passengers, p.5

           A. S. King
 
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  “But Jeff Garnet is a nice kid,” Ellis says.

  “I know. Look. Why can’t you all just butt out of my life?”

  Claire holds up her wineglass. “If we butted out of your life, you’d still be in diapers. And dating that fat boy.”

  10

  I DO NOT LIKE THE PLAN.

  “YOU’RE GOING TO CALL JEFF, and you’re going to get him to cover for you,” Kristina says.

  “Were you talking to my mom?”

  “No, why?” she asks. She’s not lying. I can tell when she lies, and she’s genuinely clueless about the rally cry at dinner last night about how badly I need a boyfriend.

  We’re in my room, and until she started talking, I was completely blissed out after a morning at work with Dee where we worked side by side and spent the entire time pretending to talk in our own language of clicks and weird robotic animal sounds until we cracked everyone up and I nearly peed my pants. We spent a half hour “taking inventory” in both walk-ins (fridge and freezer) for a huge job we have next week. Some big reception and open-house event for the Hispanic Center in town, the biggest job Maldonado Catering ever got.

  “Dude? Did you hear me?” Kristina says. “You’re going to call Jeff.”

  “Why?”

  “So we can go out.”

  “I think I can go out without having to drag Jeff Garnet into my life,” I say.

  Kristina is lying on my bed, dressed in sweats, looking awesome, even though I know she probably rolled out of bed five minutes ago, hasn’t showered and probably hasn’t even brushed her teeth. I’m sitting on my windowsill because I’m still in my shrimp-flavored catering pants.

  “We have to come home a little later than the Claire and Gerry Jones curfew,” she says. That’s eleven thirty on Friday and Saturday nights. And I’ve never used it due to my work hours… and the fact that I don’t have anyone to go out with. “That’s why Jeff is the perfect cover. Claire’s been bugging me all year to find you a boyfriend. So, now we’ve found him.”

  “Can’t we find a guy who talks? All he ever does is stare and say things like ‘hi’ and ‘hey,’ and he jiggles his leg. I don’t know. I mean…”

  “Can you just listen? This is the only way we can get you out late enough for the plan to work. Trust me. I have Claire wrapped around my finger.”

  “Then why can’t you be my cover?” I ask.

  She thinks about this for a millisecond. “Jeff would work better. I mean, even just at the beginning. Plus, it would keep Claire quiet for a minute.”

  “If we’re doing all this conspiracy stuff to get me out of the house, can you at least tell me where we’re going?”

  “You know.”

  I’m looking at her like she’s stupid. “If you want to drink, can’t Justin get anything he wants from his brother?”

  “It’s not about drinking.”

  “What other reason is there to go to a bar? And to get Jeff Garnet to lie for me?”

  “It’s not just any bar,” she says. “You know that.”

  We hear Mom moving around on her office chair two rooms away. Kristina makes the motion for get dressed and let’s get out of here. So I shoo her to the stairs, take off my catering clothes, throw on some clothing and pop my head into Mom’s office. “We’re taking a drive. Back in an hour.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “I don’t know. Probably to the lake.”

  “Fine. Just make sure your room is clean by three,” she says.

  “Why do you want me to come to a gay bar with you?” I ask. Maybe she already knows. Maybe I already show up on gaydar, even though I don’t clearly show up on my own.

  “With me and Donna and Justin and Chad,” she corrects.

  I glance at her with suspecting eyes. “I don’t get it.”

  She raises one eyebrow. “What’s there to get? I already told you there are straight people there.”

  So when she says that, I think maybe I do get it. I mean, she’s not implying I’m gay, right? She’s just trying to get me to go out.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “Seems like a big risk for me to take when I don’t really want to drink or anything.”

  “Dude, it’s not about drinking. It’s about letting loose and being around people who don’t give a rat’s ass about you. It’s… like… the opposite of Unity Valley.”

  I pull into the parking area of the lake, and we sit at a picnic table. The place is empty except for the pickup trucks and trailers at the other end of the parking lot that belong to the horse people who come and ride the trails on the weekends.

  Kristina has her thumb on Jeff’s number, but I still don’t feel right. I say, “Can we just chill for a minute before you call? I want to think it over.”

  What if we can’t get in? What if Jeff says no? What if we get caught? What if I get hit on by women who are old enough to be my mother? What if Dee goes there and all my worlds collide? What if people see us? What if I get an answer?

  What if I get an answer?

  What if. I get. An answer?

  I laugh to myself, and Kristina asks, “What’re you laughing at?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Not fair.”

  “I was thinking about getting hit on by old ladies the same age as Claire,” I say.

  She laughs. “Could happen.”

  I ask, “Aren’t you afraid we’ll get caught?”

  “Cops are busy solving real crimes. A bunch of underage queer kids is the last thing they care about. Not to say you’re queer or anything. I meant the rest of us,” she adds.

  I say, “What if someone sees us? What then?”

  “Don’t you think they’d be equally concerned that we don’t tell people we saw them?”

  I sigh. I know Kristina isn’t going to take no for an answer.

  “Exactly what are you going to tell Jeff that will make him cover for me?” I ask.

  “It’s easy,” she says. “I’m going to promise him beer and a double date with me, you and Justin at the diner next week in exchange for telling Claire that he’s taking you to the midnight movies tonight.”

  I sigh.

  “Leave it to me,” she says. “I know what I’m doing.”

  She pulls out her phone and presses some buttons with her thumb, and we both look up, watching clouds—or, in my case, planes. When Jeff answers, she cons him into calling my mom later and telling her a few lies in exchange for liquor.

  Then she hands the phone to me but keeps her ear close so she can hear what Jeff says.

  “Hey, Jeff. Thanks for this,” I say.

  “Sure. I’m really glad you’re taking me up on my offer.”

  He sounds like a happy puppy. I feel horrible. I’m reminded of Tim Huber, and my stomach churns.

  Kristina makes the motion for me to pass it back to her.

  “Hey, Garnet,” she says. “Just remember—you can’t tell anyone. I hear one word on the street about this, there’s no more booze and no date for you. Dig?”

  She hangs up.

  I say, “Wow, you’re all connected to shit I don’t know anything about, man.”

  “Oh, he’s just a boy who wants booze,” she says. “He heard Justin got a bottle of gin for Tyler and Vince, and now he wants some, too. Quid pro quo, you know?”

  I’m watching a high-flying plane, and I send some random love to it. I’m wondering if any of the people on the plane say quid pro quo. I’m wondering if any of them live in a small town like we do. If they’ve ever snuck out on a Saturday night. (To a gay bar.) If they’ve ever wondered what making love to a girl must feel like. I ask them: Is it okay to lie in order to be happy?

  PASSENGER #5654

  HELEN OBERLIN, SEAT 27F

  FLIGHT #103

  DETROIT TO PHILADELPHIA

  “Ha!”

  I bust out laughing so hard that I spit my ginger ale into the seat in front of me. It fizzes through my nose and burns like bad cocaine. The guy next to me makes a disgusted face, and I
give him my napkin. As I reach into my purse for a tissue to blow the ginger ale out of my nose, I can’t figure out what just happened. Did someone ask that out loud? Where did it come from? Am I hearing voices? Hallucinating again? And who doesn’t know that nearly everyone lies at some time in their lives in order to be happy?

  In my case, I thought happiness was a lot of stupid shit. Drugs. Guys. Telling my parents off. More drugs. More telling my parents off. More guys. More drugs.

  That shit isn’t happiness. But I thought it was. And I kept lying to get it.

  What I also got was: two divorces, a kid who won’t talk to me, herpes, three stints in rehab and so much debt I went bankrupt.

  What I have now is: nothing. So much nothing that at my age, I am flying to Philly to move back in with my mother. It’s pathetic.

  To her, I’m the biggest loser who ever lived. And Mom never held back telling me that, either. Asking me, “Why couldn’t you be more like Robert?” Meaning my brother, who married his high school sweetheart and had three perfect kids. She can’t seem to stop telling me about them.

  Truth be told, I’m scared shitless to move back in with her. I’m hoping she can see the good in me.

  Just thinking this makes me so sad I look out the window and hold back tears. And I realize that I can’t even see the good in me. How can I expect Mom to see it? It’s twenty-nine years since I lied and left and made all those mistakes, and I still feel as bad about it as I always did. I run through the twelve steps of recovery in my head. I remember asking everyone else in my life for forgiveness, but I realize I never asked myself.

  I ask the man next to me to get up so I can go to the bathroom. He does, still with that look on his face like I might have given him a disease from my ginger ale spitting. As I slowly walk down the aisle, I look at the people, and I wonder what they lied about in their lives. I want to ask for their help. How do I forgive myself? I have an imaginary conversation with them, and then they tell me: Just do it.

  A minute later, as I wait in line for the bathroom and stare out at the beautiful Pennsylvania landscape, I get that feeling again—like I want to bust out laughing. I can’t control it. It’s worse than any drug giggles I ever got. I’m fifty years old and moving in with my mother, and I’m laughing my ass off. When I look to the other passengers, they don’t think I’m some junkie. They smile. I can almost hear them asking, What took you so long?

  11

  IT IS WAY TOO EASY TO GET INTO ATLANTIS.

  LOOKING CONFIDENT and looking twenty-one are two entirely different things.

  Right now, I’m pretty sure I look like a very nervous seventeen-year-old. And it’s cold out here, and we left our coats in the car. It’s a short line. Maybe three people in front of us. By us, I mean Kristina and Donna, Justin and Chad, and me. I am the fifth wheel.

  “You have your money ready?” Kristina asks.

  I nod, my five-dollar bill getting soggy in my palm.

  “Don’t look so worried!”

  “I’m not worried,” I say.

  Kristina gives me the look. “You look scared shitless.”

  “I’m not. Seriously. I was just thinking about something. That’s all.”

  Yeah. I was thinking about getting caught. At first I was scared the bouncer might say, “Sorry, kids, I need ID,” but then I realized that would be fine. Then we could go home. Kristina could go back to meeting Donna at McDonald’s or the parking lot out by Freedom Lake and double-dating with Justin and Chad on Fridays like always, and I could go back to keeping my secret love for Dee stowed away in the deepest regions of my baffled heart.

  We move forward, and we all hand him our five bucks. Donna says, “Hey, Jim. How you doing?”

  Jim says something I can’t hear because the music is too loud and I’m concentrating on not passing out from fear. He smiles at me, and I know that he knows I’m seventeen. Then… we’re inside. Just like that.

  It’s small. Maybe as big as the floor plan of my house. The bar itself is a big oval, packed two people deep. There’s about four feet between those placing orders and the walls. Donna and Kristina lead us past the bar to the dance floor, which is tiny. There are mirrors on two sides, and they skew my ability to figure out square footage, but I figure it’s twenty feet by fifteen feet, tops. It’s packed with dancing people. Dancing gay people. People letting loose and not giving a shit what other people think about them, just as Kristina promised. People who aren’t thinking about small-town bullshit or, say, the humanities homework they have yet to complete. People who I wish I was.

  We follow Justin and Chad into the back room, where they find a darkened corner and immediately set to work gnawing the faces off each other. Donna says she has to pee, so Kristina and I are left standing in the back room of Atlantis, looking around at the arcade games and vintage pinball machines, trying to pretend that we’re not seventeen. I pull my phone from the pocket of my jeans and check to see if anyone has called. No one. I check the time: 11:15. I am abruptly pissed off that all it took was a phone call from Jeff Garnet to convince my mother to let me break curfew. I’m pissed at how she said “Knock ’em dead” before I left the house. Let’s not urge our teenager to go and get laid quite yet, Claire.

  They say: All normal teenagers are doing it. As long as they don’t come home with a disease or a baby, what’s the big deal?

  They say: She hasn’t met the right boy, is all.

  Donna comes out of the bathroom and looks ready to dance. She grabs Chad and Justin from the corner by the small coatroom and pulls them with her. The DJ puts on something techno and upbeat, and we head out to the dance floor like a tiny mob.

  This is around the time when I remember that I don’t really dance.

  12

  TURNS OUT ASTRID JONES IS A ROBOT.

  I LOOK AROUND THE DANCE FLOOR and see other people who are good dancers, and then I see myself in the mirror, and I see I am a nervous dancer. A barely dancing dancer. A robot. I don’t move anything below my waist. I look like I’m about to do a defensive drill during basketball gym class.

  Upon noticing this, I become so self-conscious that I can’t stay on the dance floor, so I gravitate toward the edge, where people are standing around drinking, talking and watching. I turn to watch the people on the dance floor. There is a lot of grinding and shaking and virtual humping. Kristina is there by herself while Donna goes to the bar for two beers, and she’s really moving. Justin and Chad are nowhere to be seen. Probably back in the corner by the coatroom making out again. They get two nights a week to see each other, so they use them well. I get it.

  “Why’d you stop?” someone says. I don’t think she’s talking to me until she tugs on my sleeve and says it again. “Why’d you stop?”

  She’s about a foot shorter than me, about fifty—maybe older. Yeah. Older than Mom, for sure.

  “Better to leave the dance floor to people who can actually dance, you know?” I say this in the most nervous seventeen-year-old voice I ever heard. I think I’m shaking.

  “I thought you were great,” she says.

  I say, “Really?” because I have no idea what else to say. There is no doubt this woman has hit on at least three million women in her life. And though she looks a bit leathery and is dressed like the biker from the Village People (leather vest, boot-cut jeans, leather biker cap and engineer boots), there’s something attractive about her because she’s her.

  “Really. You looked great.”

  I nod and send her love. Biker Lady, I love you for talking to me right now. Time is moving so much faster because you’re talking, and I need that because I just discovered I am a robot.

  “You here with someone?”

  I look to make sure Kristina and Donna are still far enough away not to overhear. “My girlfriend had to work,” I say, nodding.

  She smiles at me. It’s not a creepy smile or a flirtatious smile. I can’t describe it. It’s like a supportive smile. Friendly and happy for me. Happy that I have a girlf
riend. Behind her, edging in like he’s about to order a drink, is Frank Socrates. He’s smiling, too, because it’s my brain that put him here. I dressed him in a toga and made his hair extra frizzy because it’s humid outside. He puts me at ease, which is better than how I felt up until now as a robot.

  The music morphs into another song, and Biker Lady turns to me and says, “Come on! Show me what you got!” and grabs my wrist and drags me out to the floor. I look over my shoulder, and Frank’s still there, smiling. I’m so glad I brought him. I need the moral support.

  So I dance with Biker Lady. It’s an old song, “Boogie Wonderland,” and I start my robot not-dancing dancing again while she dances around me and blows a whistle periodically and claps. She’s got biceps twice the size of Dad’s.

  Halfway through the song, I get a little glimpse of what it’s like not to care that people might be looking at me. Not to care what they might say about me. I smile, and the biker lady smiles back and blows her whistle and then starts a victory lap around the bar.

  All the people at the bar put out their hands for high fives, and some pat her on the ass or hug her and some duck down and kiss her. It occurs to me, as I stand on the edge of the dance floor out of breath, that people here are nice to each other.

  It occurs to me that Atlantis could be the exact opposite of Unity Valley, just like Kristina said it was.

  “New friend of yours?” Kristina asks.

  I nod.

  “You sure this isn’t weird for you?” She points to two women kissing.

  I shrug. “I’ve seen you and Donna do that before.” I want to add that I don’t see one straight person here, but I don’t think it’s relevant. Plus, I guess we both know Kristina was lying to get me to do what she wanted me to do. Which is what she does sometimes.

  “Who said my name?” Donna says as she dances into our conversation.

  “I think we should make this a Saturday night tradition,” Kristina says.

  I pull out my phone again and see it’s one o’clock. I realize that I have to leave for work in four short hours.

 
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