Rules of my best friends.., p.21
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.21

           Matthue Roth
 
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  “Yeah,” she said. “You spent a rather long time being sort of an ass.”

  I felt my cheeks redden, burn, grow radioactive. She was right. She was completely right, and I was completely an ass.

  But that wasn’t the only thing.

  “And you spent a really long time being—I don’t know. Not you.”

  We stepped off the curb and crossed Broad Street. Instantly we went from no light to a watershed of bright light everywhere: Streetlights, marquees, the loud lights of cars and cabs, the muted blue and purple glows of sophisticated bars, the hot primary-color lights of the dance clubs and the gay clubs. One second we had no shadows; the next, each of our bodies cast shadows in every direction there was.

  “Because you shared all of yourself with me and I burned you?” Larissa said.

  “Is that what happened?” I said.

  We stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She heaved a sigh.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I just couldn’t deal. You and Mitch were two of my closest friends. And then he did what he did, and you told me you liked me, and neither one was something I could handle at that point.”

  “And so you went out with Damon instead?”

  “Only for about twenty seconds.”

  That’s twenty seconds longer than you went out with me.

  I didn’t say that. I wanted to, and I knew it was an evil thing to say, and I held myself back from saying it.

  “Yeah, what was that about?”

  “He asked me. He asked, and I needed something simple. Damon is easy. Dependable. It was basically just like, we sat around and watched a bunch of movies together for a week or two. It was like hanging out. It wasn’t something deep or scary or world-shattering.”

  “I wouldn’t have shattered your world!”

  “You don’t think so now. But we were so intense, Arty. We spent half the night talking every single night, and the other half thinking about everything that we talked about. I was too shattered. I needed to build some new walls around myself.”

  Now she had stopped walking, and so had I. We stood in the red swath of a fancy club, one of those clubs on the ground floor of a hotel. Larissa was talking so fast that her body was shaking. I was moving too—my whole body, swaying with the rhythm of her sentences, like a Hasidic Jew when they prayed.

  “You have changed,” I said. “You seem better. Happier.”

  “You seem happy, too.”

  “Happy? I don’t know about that. But you know me. Happiness wouldn’t really make me happy. It’d probably make me completely miserable.”

  “I don’t know about that. When that girl was crawling all over you, you seemed pretty...enthusiastic.” Larissa smiled. She smiled in a way that was amused and intrigued and excited all at once, and I remembered when I had wanted more than anything to get that smile out of her.

  “But I want to be enthusiastic with you,” I said. “You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”

  Her expression flickered. She was still smiling, but now it was a smile of utter sadness.

  “Oh, Arty,” she said. “At one point I thought so, too. I thought we were so perfect for each other—we loved the same things, we had the same thoughts. And after a while, we were trapping ourselves in those thoughts. It was like, we weren’t being each other’s soulmates—we were trapping ourselves inside what we wanted each other to be.”

  “And now these kids you’re with—these Bridleton kids—are they any better for you?”

  “No, but I’m with a bunch of people who, wherever they are, it’s basically the suburbs, and we’re all going straight back as soon as they finish teasing me for forcing them to go to something as weird and depraved and un-normal as Rocky Horror. Seriously, the kids I’m here with—they don’t know how to participate. They don’t get that you’re supposed to jump up, you’re supposed to be alive. They just watch it like a movie.”

  “Well, we didn’t know the words either—”

  “No, but we tried, didn’t we? We faked it, and we kept on faking it until we got the words right. We brought our toast and toilet paper and water pistols. Errol—he’s this new guy I’m sort of seeing—he has to make fun of everything. He keeps asking if Frank-N-Furter is gay or what.”

  “Oh, that’s Roderick. Yes. Incredibly yes.”

  “Roderick, huh?”

  She sounded sad that I had new friends who weren’t her. She said Roderick’s name like she was saying goodbye.

  “So why are you dating this guy?” I asked. “He sounds like a wad.”

  “He’s not. He’s small-minded and uncritical and a total conformist, but...he’s sweet, Arty. He’s really nice. Sometimes he says stuff like that because he’s afraid he can’t keep up with me. There’s something strangely touching about the way he sees the world.”

  “But you thought I was sweet. I can be simple, too.”

  “But you don’t want to be simple.”

  “Sometimes I do.”

  “I don’t want you to be simple, either. Oh, Arty. Would you even want to date me anymore?”

  “Yes,” I said immediately.

  G-d yes. Oh yes. The sun, stars, and several major constellations yes. Yes.

  But that wasn’t a real question, and I knew it wasn’t. She would never let it happen, either. Or she just didn’t believe me.

  “I wish we had different lives, Arty,” she said. “We’re so wrong for each other, but in an alternate universe, we’d have a hell of a time finding that out.”

  “But we had a hell of a time anyway,” I said. “Didn’t we?”

  She looked at me. She cradled her head in her arms and looked at me, and I could feel the rush of memories sweeping over both of us, of everything we’d been: the books we’d read together, the way we walked around towntown like we owned it, the pool runs and convenience-store runs and the way we’d run straight to the basement upon arriving at her home in order to avoid her mother and the way even the mall was cool when it was with her. The first time she’d typed her way into my phone.

  The picture I was drawing when I met her, and all the picture since.

  The club we were standing in front of was emptying out. Last call was called, and people were fleeing. The overhead lights rising, bringing to an end all the half-lit illusions, women with streaked makeup, men in jackets too big for their limp shoulders.

  “So are we going to be friends?” I asked. I felt like I sounded very tiny at that moment. It might have been the most pathetic thing I ever said.

  “Of course we are,” she said. “Forever.”

  “But will we still be...what we were?”

  She knew what I meant. More than anyone else. We shared secrets that the rest of the universe couldn’t touch.

  She smiled at me. “Look where we are.”

  I’d looked into the club before, but now I looked harder. Shiny walls. Glittering chandeliers. It was weird and arty, trying too hard, like an alien world on a ’60s science fiction TV show.

  “No,” said Larissa. “Across the street.”

  The bus station. Not like 30th Street Station, with its scuttling businessmen and Greek-palace columns. Here was the entrance plaza to the Greyhound station. Populated by sad-looking teenagers and broken old people and the drug dealers who never left. We could walk in, buy a ticket for $20, and be on an hourly bus to New York City. Or to anywhere else.

  “Oh my G-d, Larissa,” I said. I grabbed her hand. “This is so crazy. We’re basically here. We could go—we could be in New York in no time. We could leap on the bus and by the time the sun comes up, we could be sitting atop the Brooklyn Bridge.”

  “You could,” Larissa said. “I’m not really sure New York fits me right now.”

  There was nothing to argue with. I knew she was right, and she knew I wouldn’t go. Not tonight, anyway.

  “What should we do now?” I said. “Do you want to go back to the show?”

  “Screw that,” she said. “We probably misse
d the orgy scene anyway. Let’s sit on the stairs till everyone comes out at the end, and you can tell me about your Rocky Horror friends.”

  me

  I still stayed up late most nights. The weather was getting warmer. The sun was getting less sleep, and why should I be any different? My parents and I still had our evenings scheduled to the tightest rhythm—6:00 dinner, 6:45 homework, 9:30 showers, 10:00 lights out—but I couldn’t help not falling asleep right away. Sometimes I lay there for hours, just wondering about the past, feeling out the possibilities of the present.

  Sometimes I messaged with Damon. We barely saw each other, even though we went to the same school. He had his crowd, and I had mine. We checked in every week or two, partly just to catch up on geek news, partly—I think—to remind ourselves of where we came from, and to make sure that we both had escaped.

  The other night I asked Damon about Larissa. Nothing specific, just how she was doing. “How’s that guy she was seeing?” Actually, I might have said something like that.

  Damon sounded surprised to hear it. These days, Larissa and I talked nearly not at all. I suspected that most of our friends thought we went through a bad breakup. Hell, I had no idea. Maybe that was closer to the truth than I knew.

  “Ancient history,” Damon told me.

  “Really? Is there a new guy?”

  “There isn’t, as a matter of fact,” he told me. “She says, she wants to get back to being me.” There was a pause, and then he clarified. “She means her, I think. Not back to being me, I mean.”

  The last time we’d spoken, she’d told me she felt like she was hiding herself inside other people. I felt a warm, weird swell of pride that she was following through with her own advice—that, even if we weren’t still bonded, we could still be doing good things individually.

  “Hey, why do you even care?” he wrote. “Don’t you have this hot new actress girlfriend or something?”

  I grinned. Score one for me.

  “Mostly or something,” I replied. “But, no. I have zero interest in Larissa at all, in that way.” Any more.

  “OK, dude. If you say so.”

  “Besides, Damon. I am so not after your sloppy seconds.”

  “If it helps, she wasn’t a very good kisser.”

  “She wasn’t?!?”

  “Not at all. Not with me, at least. She just sort of opened her mouth and didn’t do anything with it.”

  My lack of immediate response must have disturbed him sufficiently, because he added, after a lull, “I’m sorry if that sounded, you know, inappropriate or sexist or anything.”

  “It was, a little. But it was a nice thing to say.”

  I assured Damon that, indeed, he had helped me (morally, spiritually), and we said a brief goodbye. And you know what? It really did help. It felt like wisdom worthy of coming from Larissa herself. You can’t always get what you want. But you get what you need.

  “And what about you, Mister Cuddle Bunny?” he said. “What’s going on with you and the female subspecies?”

  “Things work out,” I told him, with a pinch of the wisdom that I’d stolen from Larissa. “One way or another, we get what we need.”

  These days, I was feeling a bit of zen—existing in that world Mrs. Szmerling told us about, the one of not thinking too hard and just dancing. I think that maybe I’d started to believe in G-d. Or maybe that this whole time it wasn’t G-d that I didn’t believe in, but the idea that everything that happened to us happened on purpose. Maybe a lot of the bad stuff that happened was just caused by us and our own bad decisions. Maybe G-d was just a spectator to some of this stuff as well. What kind of a G-d willingly let someone get raped? It still wasn’t a good thought, and I was still pissed as all hell at any G-d who would exist and allow it to happen. Like, G-d could’ve sent locusts or a hailstorm or ninjas to interrupt. But maybe, the way that things ended up, they really were supposed to end up this way.

  And that’s what I was thinking about now.

  *

  There was a ladder attached to the wall that ran up to the roof of the factory behind my house. There was a fence, but it wasn’t barbed or electrocuted or anything. I’d stared at the damn thing for sixteen years, and never tried to climb it once before today.

  From up here, you could see almost the entire sky. Was it only this blue in spring, or had I just spent all winter living too close to the ground? From up here, the barren rows of factories and dollar stores and bars and beauty shops were almost beautiful. Was I finally starting to like the Yards? Okay, that was going too far. But I was finally finding a poetry here.

  *

  Darkness fell that night at 6:00 or so, a more reasonable time for it to occur than the absurdly early 4:30 of the winter months. The world was finding its balance again.

  I walked through my parents’ house in the unfamiliar dusk. My mother’s voice called from downstairs.

  “There’s a car waiting in front,” she said. “I think it might be your friend?”

  Without bothering to check, I grabbed my coat and ran outside.

  It was Carrie. I knew it would be. She grinned when she saw me, and I grinned back.

  I launched myself into the shotgun seat and she turned to me in surprise. “You’re sitting up front?” she said.

  “Well, at first. I’ll switch when we get her, if that’s okay with you?”

  “Don’t you dare slobber all over my backseat, Arthur Kestrel. I just had it spring cleaned.”

  “I can’t believe you clean your car,” I said. “It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

  “If you’d prefer that I didn’t have a car, or maybe that I just didn’t give you rides in it—”

  “No! I love your car, Carrie. You know that.” Her car, an old brown station wagon with green canvas seats, could fit a family of seven, and probably did, back in the Stone Age when it was born. “I’m just speaking objectively, is all.”

  I was making fun of her. She wouldn’t take it the wrong way. We had finally hit that level of security where we were cool with each other, trusted each other, and everything we did was fair game for making fun of.

  I grabbed the music player that was hooked up to the dashboard stereo, an old 8-track with wires pouring out of it. I started sifting through titles.

  “You want to put on Rocky Horror and start practicing for your big debut?” she said.

  “I told you! I’m really totally happy just cheering you guys on from the audience.”

  “You get too happy there and we’re going to start charging you admission.”

  “Didn’t you tell me once that being a perfect audience member is just as important as being a perfect performer?”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Carrie put on her poker face as she pulled up to the house. She tapped the horn five times—two long, then three short.

  The back door swung open. “Hey now!” said Little Jen. She slid straight across the backseat as if it were a bar. “What are you doing sitting up there, mister? I demand you come back here right now and give me a lap dance.” She affectionately patted the spread of her miniskirt.

  “Coming!” I chirped brightly.

  “Ew!” said Carrie. “Don’t you dare!”

  “Fine, he can stay there. This way his butt’s easier to grab.”

  “Watch it!” Carrie slapped her hands away from me playfully. “Don’t objectify Arthur. Not in my car, anyway.”

  “What if I like being objectified?”

  “Hmm.”

  “Iieee!”

  “Okay, okay, you can grab his butt. But if you get one speck of dirt on my car...”

  “Isn’t it a few decades too late for that?”

  “Watch it! Or your heavy-petting privileges will be revoked within the bounds of this vehicle.”

  “Mmm...scratchy ’70s interior....”

  “One more word, and you both are walking to this party.”

  “Obsequious?”

  “One more dum
b word.”

  “Vacuous.”

  “Ooh. ‘Vacuous’. Nice.”

  “That actually is a good word.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Mmm.”

  “Mmm.”

  Carrie’s eyes turned back to the road. Jen’s and mine turned to each other.

  *

  We were the youngest people at the party by at least ten years. It was a penthouse condo, and most of the other people there looked at us like we were savages or possibly aliens but we didn’t care. Roderick especially: The way he said hello to people, he made himself comfortable anywhere. His nonchalance was contagious. I grabbed a tiny sandwich off an hors d’oeuvres table and downed it in one gulp.

  There was punch that was spiked, punch that wasn’t spiked but was made from the fruit of seven endangered species of plants, and a drinks list that read like a bawdy 1920s noir. “What’s a cachaça?” I asked Carrie, directing my confused look from her to the bartender and back.

 
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