Chapter 2: I Just Decided Reality Sucks
I returned to my table with the pen I had bummed off the cashier. It was half-buried under a mountain of newspapers. Oh, man. This just couldn't be easy, could it? I slid into the booth and began rifting through them, picking out the "wanted" ads.
All the tiny black and white print. It was making me a little dizzy. I went back to the counter to get a large root beer and a slice of pizza. The first bite burned my mouth, but it was too good to wait. This "New York deep dish" pizza was a passable knock-off version of the pizza at home. I got another one, trying to postpone my job hunt as long as possible.
It was boring…
God, it had been years since my last job. At some diner. I was, like, fourteen and I was a busboy. Good times. I was fired because I was accused of stealing money out of a register. One hundred and fifty bucks. I had memorized the combination to the safe. If I wanted to earn more than my minimum wage I could've just cracked the lock. I wasn't anxious to jump back into the work field.
"So you come here often?" I asked the cashier, leaning against the counter. I still could see the all the newspapers hanging over the edge of my table.
"I work here," she replied with a little smile.
"Really," I said, staring hard at the papers and wishing they would disappear. "Sounds fun." I normally had a lot more game around girls, but I was trying to distract myself, not pick her up…She was a blonde with brown eyes and a few freckles and looked kind of plain in her uniform…eh…not my type, but she was a girl. She worked well enough.
She began to wipe off the trays, still looking at me. "It's alright. Luckily we get some hot customers."
"That tends to help," I agreed, watching her out of the corner of my eye. Her entire stance had changed. "Work here long?"
Her expression changed from hopeful to impatient. Why didn't I just stop blathering and ask her out? "I do have customers waiting. Is this going anywhere?" she asked testily.
"No," I confessed. "It isn't." I headed back to my table. "Thanks for the discount, by the way…"
I had bought myself a few minutes. Now the task loomed overhead. If anything, the number of papers and their tiny print seemed to double. Shit. I quickly returned to the counter to buy a bag of chips and get a refill. (The cashier was getting very annoyed with me).
I successfully stalled for fifteen minutes and couldn't think of anything else on the menu to sample without going completely broke. Only when it was entirely unavoidable, I sat back down at the table and resumed studying the papers.
Writer…no. I was better at Math and Science….I skimmed further down the page. Sales clerk at some clothes store I never heard of…no. I was a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy. How could I make a living helping others find stylish clothes? Besides, I felt any guy who would pursue a career in the fashion industry was a little fruity. Nanny? Ha-ha. No. Definitely not.
My attention span had reached its limit and again my mind began to wander. Oh, God, this sucked. It was boring as hell. There had to be five or six different newspapers scattered before me. Probably well over 100,000 words. Talk about a headache and strain on your eyes!
Ugh. Why'd I think this would work?
I was disgustingly naïve, that was why. Of course I had assumed that everything would work out perfectly, and would require very little effort to get there. Wrong. If I wanted to accomplish anything, I would have to rely solely on myself. A scary thought. I wasn't stupid, but I didn't have a whole lot of common sense either….
Okay, so maybe I wasn't giving myself enough credit. I had been with the gang for most of my life. I learned to be self-sufficient and how to fend for myself. Whether or not I chose to apply these valuable life skills, which I normally didn't, I still possessed them. Although technically, I was self-taught. Anyone who lived Bill or Angie would have acquired these talents. And for a long time after I joined the gang, Darryl wanted nothing to do with me…
I was approaching my first year of being Bill and Angie's little bitch. It was too long ago to remember what exactly I had done wrong, but suddenly I found myself kicked out…I was eight years old. A little kid thrown out on the streets…out on the streets of the Broncs. (I lived in New York City, but I spent most of my life in the Broncs. Funny how that worked). Basically it was only a matter of seconds before I got into trouble.
Turning a corner, I promptly stumbled into a gang fight. Drunk out of their minds, they decided it would be more meaningful to torment a kid than to finish each other off.
There was another gang present, the one I would soon join. Their leader didn't approve of what they were doing. (Someone had just suggested backing me into a wall and using me as target practice). Another fight broke out…and people were killed. One of them was Hudson.
Hudson was puny for being 17, but he was apparently the leader of the black-bandana-ed gang. Did I mention that he was Darryl's older brother? At the time the gang was made up of different people: mostly Hudson's friends. Darryl, Alicia, and everybody else were the irritating newbies, about twelve or thirteen years old. Anyways, Hudson received a blow to the head and died immediately. And Darryl hated me for it. It was my fault that his brother died, because I was the one who clubbed Hudson over the head, right? The only reason the gang didn't finish the job for the others was because Alicia, one of the only three girls to ever be in the gang, felt bad for me and took me in kind of like she did with Mel. She had a weakness for the underdog.
The gang was conflicted. Most of them wanted to get rid of me, but some others thought I should stay. I did kind of get on people's nerves. I was eight for God's sake…The whole thing was just like living in a video game. But I was forced to mature quickly and then I was tolerable. And I had a few redeeming qualities: apparently I had a proclivity for shooting and with a little practice I could hotwire a car faster than just about anyone. So I had proven myself.
…A lot happened in the next two years alone. People liked me now—well, more. Hudson's friends either left for college or quit when Darryl, at fifteen, was unanimously elected as leader. During this time, I was introduced to the joys of alcohol and cigarettes, which I became very dependent on, even to this day. (Hey, if I wanted to hang with them, I was expected to act like them). I grew very proficient with a gun and much more street savvy, and finally earned Darryl's approval.
It was my first gang fight and I had to shoot someone. I was ten-and-a-half and had already seen and done things kids my age shouldn't see or do. I remember I was horrified and couldn't sleep or be in the same room with a gun for several days after. But it wasn't Alicia who came to console me. It was Darryl. It was probably because Alicia kept pestering him to make an overture and talk to me. I was expecting it to be ugly—he'd lost his temper with me on various occasions, so I was a little afraid of him. Things went well though and by the time he was through, all of the animosity was gone. Unless he admitted it first, I would never, but in the few hours we spent talking we had become brothers.
At first Darryl gave no outward signs of a change of heart—he still was distant—but over time, everyone just sort of knew. We were both too straightforward to hide it. I grew as close as a person could get to Darryl and his words became law. His respect meant everything to me and I would go out of my way to earn more of it. Even if it meant getting myself into a lot of trouble. (Another of my many "talents"). Normally it was Darryl who had to bail me out, but somehow my antics didn't bug him anymore.
"Kid," he would scoff, "you're a dumbass."
Just like he did in the alley…for the last time…
The journey down memory lane came to an abrupt end. I was horrified to find that I was tearing up. Alicia would've been delighted; apparently whenever I showed emotional weakness, I was "making progress".
Disgusted with myself, I scrubbed my eyes, a lot harder than necessary, which only made it worse. What was wrong with me? I never cried—that impulse had been pounded out of me years ago. The only logical explanation was that I was going soft. How pathetic. A softie could command very little respect, as a gang member or in the real world. Didn't deserve a hot girl.
I was wasting time. I could've had a job by now.
I shuffled the newspapers into a messy pile and wadded them in the already-overflowing trash can. Screw the papers. They weren't worth this sort of frustration. I would find a job the normal way: lucking into it. I had really good luck. Darryl once said that I was going to win the lottery and give him half of the cash…
Now I had the 'money' all to myself. Joy…
The staff of the pizza joint seemed very glad to be rid of me, especially the cashier. Fuck her. She wasn't even cute. Well, maybe if she lost anywhere from twenty to thirty pounds she might be…you got kind of picky after you were with someone who looked like Mel…I did a double take. Nope. Plastic surgery wouldn't even fix that. Just to piss her off, I got another refill before I left.
I was driving along listening to Disturbed, when I got a craving for a burger. God, I was such a fat ass… But I didn't know if I would be able to afford any food anytime soon, so why not binge while I had the money? I gave in to my desire and pulled into a Wendy's.
I had to have wasted at least an hour just waiting to get to the front of the line.
"The service here sucks," I said matter-of-factly. The cashier looked about fifteen and seemed close to having a nervous break-down. She blushed slightly when I approached the counter.
"I know," she replied, nodding, "but we're getting slammed from both directions and my manager is off giving interviews."
"Interviews?" I repeated with interest. Excellent. So they were hiring. The cashier, whose nametag read Maggie, nodded again and pointed off into the dining room. I surrendered my spot in line to head over to the booth where a thin guy in a blue staff uniform was sitting. "Hey, can I get an interview?" I asked.
"Did you turn in an application?" he replied snippily. "Thank you," he said in a clipped voice to the interviewee. "We'll call you if you get the job."
"Thanks," the other guy said, holding out his hand. The manager looked haughtily at him. His attitude bugged me. He was a fast food manager, what gave him the right to be such a snob? How was this guy a manager, anyways? He was scarcely older than I was, a scrawny guy who looked like a rat and had abnormally large front teeth to match.
"One sec." I navigated through the snaking line to grab an application off the wall. Then I returned to his table. "Here. Now I did."
He gave me a poisonous look. Anyone with half a brain could deliver a blank application form. Clearly I was wasting his valuable time. "Now you need to fill it in and schedule an appointment." He checked his watch, waiting for the next victim.
"Late," he tutted. "He certainly won't be getting a call."
"How about now?" I offered. "Seeing as you're free and I really don't have anything better to do. Okay. Great. " I drew up a chair and sat down expectantly. I'd like to see him try and get rid of me.
For the first minute-and-a-half of our 'interview', the runty manager scrutinized me. "Tattoos," he remarked, scribbling away on his clipboard. Like I couldn't hear. "His hair is much too long. What is that thing in your eyebrow?" he said sharply, making me jump.
What did it look like? I was annoyed now. If he wanted to talk looks, I could dish it right back. 'Least I didn't look like a rodent on steroids.
"That thing has got to go," he lectured, "and you'll need to cut at least three inches off your hair…" He was hilarious. I had my eyebrow pierced since I was fifteen. And nobody touched my hair unless they were a smoking hot girl. If this dork knew anything about anything, he would know that a lot of girls liked long-ish hair on a guy.
"While I'm at it should I cut my arms off, too?" I interrupted. Then I'd be the "perfect" employee. "Now are you going to interview me or what?" I sat back in the chair, crossing my arms and deliberately displaying the tattoos.
The manager sized me up. "Alright," he said, fidgeting nervously, "have you worked at a Wendy's before?"
"Yeah," I lied easily, "for about two years."
The manager looked startled. "So, you must know all the positions," he remarked.
I resisted the sudden urge to grin. I knew positions, alright. Maybe not the kind he was talking about, but still…God, I was a pervert.
He looked skeptical. After a few seconds of staring at me, he decided a pop quiz was in order. "Do the French fries go on down for four and a half minutes?" he asked unexpectedly.
Shit. I wasn't expecting a test. "No," I said carefully, praying I was right. God, I wouldn't eat fries if they were down that long; they'd be scorched black.
"You're right," the runty manager admitted, sure he had had me. "So after you put them down for three and a half minutes, what do you do next?"
That was hard. For a second, I had actually been worried that he'd see right through me. Now I knew that anyone with half a brain could get a job here. "Salt them," I said confidently.
"Wrong!" he declared triumphantly. "You leave them down for three minutes! Then you salt them and set the timer!" Oops. I guess I had just blown my chances of getting hired.
Time for Plan B: begging. I found it worked better on girls, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
"Come on," I wheedled. "I need a job. I just moved from out of state. For my girl. She's hotter than Hell and she'll think I'm completely lame if I can't even support myself…"
The manager seemed delighted by the change of power. I had basically intimidated him into interviewing me when ordinarily, he probably wouldn't have looked in my direction.
"Sorry," he said with a malicious grin, displaying all of his gigantic teeth, "but I'm not sure that you have the right qualifications." He made a show of shuffling his papers into a neat pile. "Thank you for your time." Another interviewee was crossing the store tentatively.
"Qualifications?" I shouted, completely outraged. This guy had made me degrade myself. He had made me beg. "Reality check. This dump is a fast food restaurant. The only qualification you need is a fucking pulse!"
They probably paid minimum wage at best. Judging by the bus-sized woman settling herself down for an interview and the overgrown rat appointed as manager, this place had virtually no standards. Fuck it. I forced my way through the crowds to get to the door.
"Go to McDonald's," I announced. "This place sucks!" I left, slamming the door shut behind me. Maybe it was my short temper that frightened potential bosses... Nah. People were just gay.
So my first attempt failed miserably.
Although… I never really realized, or appreciated, just how many other fast-food joints were in this city: a lot conveniently positioned on the same street or very close by. Once again: lottery ticket-winner luck.
Or not. In record timing, I was denied a position in every single one of them. Apparently these places had a lot higher standards than I expected…and apparently I didn't meet any of these ridiculously high standards. But it only got better…
I pulled the door to the KFC open and went inside, searching for applications. Everyone eyed me warily as I filled one out. I flipped a few observers off and continued about my business. Why were they staring at me like that? Like they were afraid of me…Awkward…Then, I heard sirens, growing increasingly closer. What the hell? Cops didn't eat fried chicken. Everyone knew that their diets consisted of coffee and doughnuts. They weren't called 'pigs' for nothing.
Suddenly, cops came bursting in and I found myself at gunpoint. "Against the wall!" one of them ordered. "Hands above your head." I raised my arms and went to the wall, but didn't stand against it. There was a suspicious stain on it. Not happening.
"Ugh. Do I have to?"
"Now!" barked another cop. Cringing, I edged closer to the wall and remained there as I was examined.
So it seemed that everyone assumed I was there to perform a robbery, rather than inquire about any open positions. Somehow, I always had that effect on people. So, of course, I was arrested, which put a temporary end to my plans. (Thank God I had thought ahead and hidden my gun. Seriously, who'd be stupid enough to drive around with a weapon in clear view?)
…The vibrating of my phone jolted me out of my trance. I had almost forgotten that I had gotten it back. I was still in the police station, waiting to hear if I was going to prison. How many hours I had been here? I wondered groggily. Wasn't it completely obvious that I wasn't in (visible) possession of a gun? What idiots. There was bank less than a block away. If I wanted money, I could've gone there. Suddenly it didn't sound like that bad of an idea… Even robbery would easier than trying to get a job in this gay ass city.
Dirty looks were directed at me from all over the station. Because it kept going off, my phone was returned to me. I felt unworthy of all the "special treatment" Never mind the fact that I was clad in orange and standing in a contemporary cell. Pigs. Spitefully, I fished my phone out of my pocket and answered it, trying not to mess it up. My fingertips were still stained with black ink from the fingerprinting.
"Hey." It was Mel. "Where are you? I must've left you a hundred messages."
"Prison," I answered flatly.
"What?! Why? What'd you do?" She took it well. She was very familiar with my record.
"I'm still trying to figure it out," I explained.
There was a beep and the call had been disconnected. Lousy fucking service. Cruddy fucking police station. Stupid fucking city. God. Life in the real world sucked.
Oh, look. The pigs were coming back.
The bars were sliding back. "Okay, kid, you're free to go," one of the cops said. "They didn't find a gun. You were innocent after all. Just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I've only been telling you that for the last four…five hours," I seethed, retrieving my watch from my wadded-up clothes.
…I had to wait an additional two-and-a-half hours for them to get rid off all of the paperwork. As a future note, I would have to be a lot more careful. If they did all this shit and I was innocent, I couldn't even imagine the hell I would have to endure if I had actually committed a crime.
I stepped out of the station and was greeted by darkness. It had to be almost midnight, or even later. So much for performing Part Two of my search: finding a roommate.
Maybe that was a good thing. If it was anywhere as problematic as job-hunting was, I could easily be on the side of the road, dead. No one would want to take in a broke roommate, especially not one who was going to "rob" them. The whole world just a saw money-hungry thief. In addition, I didn't get along great with other guys, refused to be in the same room as a gay guy, and would face too much temptation if I roomed with a hot girl—straight or gay.
I couldn't do anything to fuck up my relationship with Mel. She meant too much to me. If I had to, I would live in my car for the rest of the year. There would be a few kinks to work out, but she was worth it.
After the day I had, I was completely exhausted. Driving a lot more than three or four hours, as I had predicted, spending all day at school, job searching, and being arrested. …Living in my car? Not a bad idea. Suddenly the Hummer looked like a five-star hotel. I could bunk down just about anywhere.
I pulled into the empty parking lot of Giant. I retrieved a spare blanket from the trunk, laid my seat back, and set the alarm on my phone. Gratefully, I collapsed on the flattened seat and fell asleep instantly. I jerked awake when I heard a buzzing sound. It wasn't the alarm going off. Someone else was calling me. For once, I wished I wasn't so popular.
"What?" I grumbled.
"Where are you, Mike?" Alicia this time. Women worried too much. All the ones I knew were especially suffocating…
"Parking lot," I said groggily, trying and failing to stifle a huge yawn.
"A parking lot where?"
"In the Hummer." I was stupid as hell when I was tired. I had no problem getting to sleep; waking up was the bitch.
"Are you coming back to New York?" Alicia was growing impatient.
"No. Mel said she loved me. I'm staying."
"She did? That's great! I'm so glad everything worked out alright." I was too tired to deal with Alicia's newfound enthusiasm.
"It's like one in the morning. Can I get some sleep?" I begged. That set Alicia off. She wanted details, lots of them, and everything else could just wait. Cue lecture. I leaned back, setting the phone on speaker and allowing it to rest on my chest. Alicia could have a conservation by herself. I intended to make a pretense of listening, but my head kept drooping and my eyes kept closing.
"Mike!" Alicia had kept on going. Just like I expected her to.
I jumped, startled awake. All this surprising wasn't good for my nerves. "I wasn't sleeping," I lied automatically. I was still out of it, because I was scarcely aware of saying it.
"You were snoring," came the irritable reply. Even as she was reprimanding me, I was falling asleep again. Alicia sighed, fed up. She knew talking to me right now was useless. "Take care of yourself, Mike. I mean it…"
I said something, but I was running fully on autopilot. For all I knew, I could've bitched her out. Alicia hung up and without another thought, I snapped my phone shut and rolled over to go back to sleep.
Mel knew something was up.
It couldn't be because I ate like a half-starved animal at lunch, not sure of where my next meal might come from. It couldn't be because I kept blowing her off so I could go hunting for jobs. (I never said I was good at multi-tasking).
In all honesty, I was ashamed that I was still unemployed, no matter how hard I was trying to get a job, and of course, that I had been crashing in my car the entire week. (Thank God for Gym class. I was the only one lame enough to use the showers, but at least I could get one daily). If she knew the truth, she would think I was pathetic. My honor was on the line.
Something needed to change—fast.
Already, my aloofness was causing my relationship to crumble. I hated that I was doing that to her—confessing my love one day and dodging her the remainder of the week. Mel was hurt and offended—and had every reason to be. Conversation between us grew clipped. Half the time she wouldn't respond when I kissed her; sometimes she even turned her head so I would end up kissing her on the cheek.
My spending money was getting lower and lower. (I was too cheap to make a withdrawal from the bank. Turns out, my dad thought ahead and left me money that only I could touch. Bill and Angie had cleaned everything else out. Besides, banks equaled trouble. I had already been arrested for potential robbery). I was cleaning my lunch account out. Already I had to bum a few cigarettes off Mel. (I was stressed, so chain-smoking was my best escape). She didn't even have the strong kind. That really was pathetic. A guy should be doting on his girl, not cleaning her out of cigs. I completely violated all of the rules of the dating world.
Ignore girlfriend. Check. Mooch off of her. Check. Not return her calls. Check. God, I seriously was an awful boyfriend. Likewise, I was getting similar treatment. Suddenly the possibility of us breaking up was much too real. I couldn't tell her how inwardly dependent I had become on her. Not for financial support, but emotional support.
This was hard as hell, but it was all for her. I'd given up everything that was formerly my life for her, kicking and screaming the entire time. She was the first person to come between me and my devotion to the gang. She had done so much for me, which was what first drew me to her. I had been at the point where I sort of assumed people stopped caring.
I could still be in New York, prowling the streets and drinking my life away. The more I thought about, the more I realized it wasn't for me. I had ambitions that I chose to keep secret and they would never be reached there. Even still, I was plagued by homesickness one more than one occasion.
To assure her that my feelings were still there, stronger than ever, I blew the rest of my money to take her out on our first real date.
It wasn't anything fancy. She wasn't that kind of girl. Another point scored for her. At one point, I had dated the most high- maintenance girl ever. Of course my relationship with Katie sucked in a lot of other ways. It was impossible to pinpoint just one reason.
Basically our date was just dinner, a movie, and a lot of talking: both during the movie and once we got kicked out because of it.
…We were sitting on the stairs at school. More specifically the on top of the handrail. It was the only place deserted on a Friday night that we could both mutually think of. Kind of surprising.
"Something's been bugging you," Mel remarked, steering the conversation back to me—again. No matter how many times I changed the subject, we kept wandering back onto it. This evening wasn't about me. It was supposed to be about her.
"It's nothing," I lied, wondering how convincing I sounded. All of a sudden, my mental block wasn't working. I wanted to let her fully in, but it was hard. My entire life I had been trained to block people out, and when a few slipped in through the cracks, they immediately were out of it. And what if she got to know the real me and I didn't meet her expectations? Her opinion meant so much to me.
She offered me a cigarette. When I reached for it, she moved it away. "All you need to do is tell me," she coaxed. I gave her an annoyed look. Mel enhanced her offer. "You can have the pack…" Good try. I almost fell for it.
I remained silent and she surrendered the pack anyway. "You're hopeless."
I got that a lot. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, already feeling myself loosening up. No matter what people said about them, cigs were God's Gift to Creation. When I died of lung cancer, at least I'd go out happy. Mel dropped her hand on mine, curling her fingers around it. She edged closer and looked up at me encouragingly.
We'll both feel better once you let it out. I won't judge you; I just want to know what's going on.
Pride forbade me from telling her. But it didn't stop me from telling her other things. I slid my arm around her waist, pulling her close. I kissed her on her forehead, breathing in the smell of her hair and perfume: my ways of wordlessly telling her I loved her. She understood.
…We drove in contented silence back to her house. The neighborhood was really impressive. All of the houses had to cost at least half a million. I felt severely out of place.
Mel unbuckled her seatbelt. "Thanks," she said. "It was nice." She hesitated a moment before getting out. I hoped that meant I was forgiven. Cautiously I leaned in to kiss her.
She let me.