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Ask the passengers, p.6
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       Ask the Passengers, p.6

           A. S. King
 
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  Kristina points. “Here comes your friend.”

  Biker Lady comes up on my right side and puts her strong arm around me. “You coming back to see us next week?”

  Kristina and I nod.

  “You bringing your girlfriend next time?”

  “I don’t know,” I say.

  Kristina hears this and has that look on her face, so I wink at her to let her know that this was a lie I had to tell to cover my ass on my first night in a gay bar. It doesn’t stop her from looking at me in a new way, though. As if maybe I do have a girlfriend.

  “I hope to see you then,” Biker Lady says. “And your lucky lady.” Then she walks to the back of the bar and blends in with the regulars who all stand by the DJ booth.

  We hold our laughter in until she is completely out of sight. Then we crack up. Kristina says, “Lucky lady! Oh, my God!”

  Donna brings us two beers, and we crack up again when I say, “Speaking of lucky ladies!”

  You know what this is? It’s fun.

  You know the last time I had fun? I can’t remember.

  13

  ASTRID JONES JUST ISN’T READY YET, OKAY?

  MY ALARM GOES OFF AT FIVE. As in five AM. Oh-five-hundred hours. Like, about an hour after I fell asleep. I can still hear the music pumping in my ears. I can still feel the crispy hair at the base of my neck from dancing until I sweated. I manage to brush my teeth, put a bandanna on over my insane hair and get dressed in my catering standard: checked pants and a white men’s T-shirt. The idea of food—eating it or preparing it or touching it—is just so far from what I want to face right now. I feel like during the night, a family of raccoons built a nest in my head and then got diarrhea there. I think this is called a hangover, but I can’t be sure.

  Dee is waiting for me in her Buick, and she smiles when she sees me round the corner of the parking lot. I park in the space next to her and put my forehead on my steering wheel to indicate that I am still technically asleep. I hear her car door slam shut, and then there is an aggressive knock on my window.

  “Hey, sleepyhead. Come on.”

  I pretend to sleep more. I slouch. I slide to my right and lump myself on the passenger’s seat. She opens the door and climbs in on top of me.

  She kisses my neck and my cheek and my head, and I instantly get giggly, and then she turns my head and kisses me and time stands still and I don’t care how late I am to punch my stupid time card.

  When she moves to put her hand between my legs, I stop her.

  “Whoa there. Just where do you think you are?”

  “I know where I am,” she says, moving to my fly. “I know where I’m going.”

  “Where are you?”

  “I am in a big parking lot that only has two cars in it. Yours and mine. And no one can see or hear us.” She kisses my ear. “So why waste it?”

  I escape by rolling onto the floor and crab-walking my way toward the open driver’s door. She pouts like this is a joke. It irks me that she thinks this is fine. It’s not fine. It’s pushy. Annoying. Not to mention borderline creepy that I had to escape my own car.

  Seconds after I stand up outside the car and straighten my shirt, Juan arrives at the deliveries door and says something to me. I have no idea what he says. I think he’s speaking Spanish.

  If I spoke Spanish, I think a little part of me would want to say, “Thank you for saving me, Juan. I owe you one.”

  Today we make five pounds of shrimp, some clams on the half shell, four vegetable trays with broccoli, cauliflower, celery and carrots, and three trays of mushroom vol-au-vents. I pretend to have fun with Dee singing our shrimp-deveining song and stuff like that, but I don’t go into the walkins. I don’t even help her do dishes. Before we go our separate ways after work, we sit in my car. And before I say anything, she says, “You’re going to tell me to back off again, aren’t you?” She pouts.

  “See? You’re a maniac.”

  “I’m a fiend for you. I can’t help it.”

  “You can’t or you won’t?”

  “I don’t know. I just—” She moves in closer. “I just want you so bad, Jones.”

  I grab her approaching hand. “If all you want is sex, then why don’t you find a girl who just gives out? I want to get to know you better.”

  “What’s there to know?” she asks.

  “I don’t know.” I reach past her into the glove compartment for my Rolaids. “What’s your favorite meal?”

  “Seriously?”

  “Seriously.” I reach over and hold her hand. We slink down in the car seats, and I put my feet on the dash.

  She shrugs. “I like roast beef and mashed potatoes with homemade gravy and… hmm… carrots? No. Peas. No. Carrots.”

  “You can have both, you know.”

  “Yeah, both.”

  She looks bored. It’s as if she’s never talked about her favorite foods and held hands before.

  “What about your favorite thing to do?”

  She looks at me with that pout again. “Not allowed to say,” she says.

  “I mean, before you did that—what was your favorite thing to do?”

  “Hockey.”

  “Oh yeah. Of course.”

  “And running. I love running.”

  “And you love washing cauliflower, right?”

  “As long as I’m with you, I love it.”

  I look at her and cock my head. “I think that’s the sweetest thing you ever said to me.”

  “All true,” she says. “So why were you so tired this morning? Up reading some crazy book? Writing poetry about how much you love my fine brawny ass?” she asks.

  I chew my Rolaids and take an extra second to consider my options here. It’s Dee. She no doubt knows about Atlantis. She may have even been there before. I think about Kristina and Justin and their secrets that I’ve sworn to keep. I think about how I have different secrets hidden from different people in different areas of my life. I think about how that might be the reason I’m chewing on Rolaids all the time.

  She leans in to kiss me good-bye, and when she does, I wish I lived on the right planet where kissing Dee Roberts wasn’t a big freaking deal. Where it didn’t mean I have to affix a label to my forehead so people can take turns trying to figure out what caused it or what’s wrong with me. And I wish I didn’t have to lie so much. I don’t think Frank Socrates would approve of all this lying.

  I think Frank would want me to cause a lot more trouble.

  14

  I THINK THE RACCOONS NOW HAVE DYSENTERY.

  THE CLOSER I GET TO HOME, the worse my hangover gets. My head aches, and my gut feels horrible. Especially when I walk into the house and have to face the smell of my mother’s paella. Oh, God. It’s her crazy ultimate paella with every shellfish known to man in it. Why can’t I have a normal mom who wants to make American food? Burgers and fries. Something from the freezer section? Grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup?

  I change out of my work clothes and take a shower. Then I check through my backpack for any homework I can get a jump on so I can avoid going into the land of ultimate paella. I have to write a paper about one of the stories we read in lit class, so I lie on my bed and wait for an idea to come to me, until I get dangerously close to sleep, and then I make myself get up.

  “Will you give me a hand?” Mom says as I walk through the kitchen.

  “Sure.”

  “Can you fill glasses?”

  I grab the pitcher full of water and start filling glasses.

  “Shit!” she says. I look over and see her wrestling with the huge stockpot, trying to tip the contents into a large serving bowl. I put down the pitcher and help her. Not without catching a whiff of the mussels and pimentos.

  “Thanks,” she says. I am amazed at how normal this whole exchange was. I’m impressed that she didn’t critique my serving-bowl-holding abilities or something.

  Twenty minutes later, I’m pretending to eat paella but really eating more bread dipped in olive oil
than paella. So far, no one notices.

  “We play Holy Guardian on Tuesday, and then we’re at home on Friday against Frederickstown again. Over halfway through the season already,” Ellis says.

  “I’ll make it to the Frederickstown game. Can’t do Tuesday, though,” Dad says.

  Mom stays quiet.

  “Awesome, Dad. You rock,” Ellis says.

  Does anyone else in the room hear the not awesome, Mom—you don’t rock part? I do.

  “Doesn’t look like you guys will make it to the postseason, though,” Dad says. “I know you really wanted to.”

  “It’s cool. I have next year to try again, right?” Ellis smiles at him.

  “What about you, Astrid? Anything happening this week?”

  I dip more bread into the oil and pick up my fork as if I plan to eat paella. “It turned out that Zeno is right,” I say. I still haven’t told them about Zeno, so we’ll see if they bite.

  “Really?” Mom says.

  “Yep.”

  “Which one is he again? The history or the American lit teacher?” Mom says. She pours herself another glass of wine.

  “Isn’t he a philosopher?” Dad says.

  I point at him and shoot a finger gun. “Bingo.”

  “Oh,” Mom says. And when I don’t say anything else, she says, “Which one was he again?”

  “The guy who said motion is impossible,” I say. I take one pseudo-bite of the paella, and it’s pretty good except for the pimentos. And the fish. I try to get forkfuls of rice only. Then I go back to just the bread.

  “Like moving motion?” Ellis asks.

  “Yep. Like all motion.”

  “He said it was impossible?”

  “Him and a lot of guys before him. But he proved it in new ways. Mostly to disprove it, I think, but still, yep. That’s what he meant.”

  Mom and Ellis look at me like I’m weird. Dad says, “How’d he prove it?”

  I explain the arrow theory.

  “That’s stupid,” Ellis says. “That’s like saying that I’m not eating paella.” She eats paella. “See?” she says with her mouth full of paella.

  “I know.”

  “So didn’t you say he was right?”

  “He is,” I say. “But not in the way he meant. In other ways.”

  “Are you getting graded for learning this stuff?” Mom asks. “Because I can’t see how this will help you get a job.” Ah, there’s the Claire that was missing half an hour ago. I missed you, Claire.

  “Come on, Claire. This is what college kids learn in Philosophy 101. You don’t remember Zeno?” Dad asks.

  “Nope.”

  “Didn’t they teach philosophy in art school?”

  She glares at him. “They taught it. I didn’t take it. I had more practical things to learn so I could one day support my family.”

  I dip more bread in more oil.

  “So when are you moving on to the Socrates part of the class?” Dad says. “I was talking to a mom at one of the hockey games, and she told me that it’s awesome. Her son took the class a few years ago.”

  “We started last week,” I say. “But this week we’ll really get into that part—the project.”

  “Stuff like that makes me wish I could go back to high school.”

  I’m about to say something lame like “yeah,” but Mom talks over me. “You can go back to college any time you want, Gerry.”

  He stops and looks at her. She said it to cut him down, but he took it as a real suggestion. His eyes dart around. “You know, Claire, you’re right. I could,” he says. “What do you think of that, girls? Imagine going to college with your dad. Freaky, huh?”

  “I don’t think so,” Ellis says. “I’d have a built-in on-campus fan for hockey games.”

  “And I’d have someone to go to wood shop with who won’t make a bong,” I say. Although I know there is a great chance that Dad would probably make a bong.

  Mom puts her fork down loudly. “No one wants to go to college with me? I was fun in college, you know.”

  She throws a sad look at Ellis, who says, “Aw, I’d go to college with you, Mom. I bet you threw some great parties.”

  15

  THE 135.

  IT IS ONLY 135 HOURS until we are all standing at the door of Atlantis again with our cover charge in our palms. Only 117 hours until I see Dee again in the parking lot of Maldonado’s. The school week is like a holding pattern. It is the invisible man. It is a black hole. It is the Enso of Zen—the big zero. All I can hear are the ticking of seconds, each one a notch in the 135. For the record, that’s 486,000 notches.

  On Tuesday in humanities we learn about Socratic paradoxes. Here’s one of Frank’s: No one desires evil. Of course, that’s an insane thing to say. One look around Unity Valley will prove the guy dead wrong. One look at anywhere will prove the guy certifiable. Especially in fifth century BC Greece. Geez. So for him to say No one desires evil is about more than just challenging the obvious fact that plenty of people desire evil.

  When I raise my hand and Ms. Steck calls on me, I say, “It was about making people think. Because the only way to disprove something that defies common sense is to ask why. Why would people desire evil? Why are people evil? Don’t they think they are doing good from their perspective? What is evil, then, anyway? That’s exactly the type of thing Socrates was after. Making people think so they could find the truth.”

  “And do you have any answers?” she asks.

  “No. Only more questions,” I say. I have come so far from my Zeno-denying arm-flailing only two weeks ago.

  They say: Astrid Jones is such a kiss-ass.

  They say: Ms. Steck will give her an A just because of lit mag.

  They say: You know about Ms. Steck, right?

  Anyway, our final assignment for the unit is to create our own paradox and be ready to argue it Socrates-style. This is the Socrates Project. Every year we’ve been in high school, the day before Thanksgiving break, senior humanities students dress like Greek philosophers and argue throughout the halls all day. It’s the reason people fight to get into this course, and the reason some people wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I fluctuate between being shit-scared and totally geeked out with excitement. I’m even going to go barefoot. I haven’t figured out my paradox yet, but I have a month, so I’m not going to push it.

  All week, Kristina is weird.

  Monday: Are you sure there wasn’t any truth to that thing you said about a girlfriend? You know you could tell me, right?

  Tuesday: She squints at me a lot and whispers something to Justin right in front of me. Justin shrugs, then pulls up his camera and snaps a picture of me. When I complain, they claim it’s just a funny joke.

  Wednesday: I thought we were best friends, dude. You’re not keeping secrets from me, are you? Justin and I can help, you know. Justin nods.

  Thursday: Silent treatment. Or at least that’s what it seems like. Plus, she’s overly friendly with her plethora of more popular friends. The Homecoming Court people, the majorettes, the two lead actresses in our fall production of The Miracle Worker. I even see her talking to Aimee Hall—enemy of many, thanks to her knack for making shit up and spreading it like mulch so the weeds of sanity can’t poke through and doubt her.

  Friday: Kristina’s all perky and nice at lunch. “Maybe you’ll tell me the truth tomorrow night?”

  “You know the truth,” I say.

  “That’s not what I heard,” she says.

  I try not to look panicked. I call Frank S. to rescue me. Bad idea. He slides into the booth behind Kristina and looks right into my eyes. He knows the truth, too.

  16

  AM I WEARING A “BE PUSHY WITH ME” SIGN?

  THE HISPANIC CENTER CATERING JOB is hard core. We work from five thirty to three thirty. That’s a long day here in the land of shrimp veins. Dee and I meet in the walk-in only once. We don’t even have time to talk except catering-teamwork talk, so while we wash and sanitize big pots and pans, she o
ccasionally hip-bumps me and I hip-bump her back.

  My quid pro quo double date with Jeff, Kristina, and Justin is at the Legion Diner on 773. It’s a popular place to get anything with fake mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m in love with their grilled cheese sandwiches. I don’t know what they do, but they make them taste better than any grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life. I think they dip them in grease first or something.

  I decide to walk because it’s five minutes from my house. Justin and Kristina drive there together and are ten minutes late, as always, and to avoid being stuck with Jeff by myself, I wait in the alleyway behind the diner until I see them park. When we get inside and sit down, Justin squeezes Kristina’s ass all the time and they kiss and hold hands, and you would never ever know that they are not two teenagers in love. I think they could both embark on serious acting careers just based on this behavior. At the same time, I wish they’d stop. They’re giving Jeff ideas, and I don’t like it.

  He tries to nuzzle my ear before our food comes and it gives me a chill and I jump. Then he puts his right hand under the table and on my thigh a little too casually, and I kick Kristina under the table.

  Our food comes and my grilled cheese is greasy and cheesy and crispy on the outside and I eat it in about three minutes and excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room. I hear the bathroom door open while I’m peeing, and Kristina comes in, sits on the toilet in the stall next to mine and once she releases her pee, she says, “Oh, my God, Astrid. He is totally in love with you.”

  “I know. He keeps squeezing my leg under the table.”

  “No, I mean he’s actually in love with you. He said it. Just now,” she says.

  I feel my cheeks warm.

  “He said it?”

  “Yep.”

  I flush and zip, and while I’m washing my hands, Kristina joins me and gives me a sympathetic look.

  “How can he be in love with me when he doesn’t even know me?”

  She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

 
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