Title: Strange Days
Author: AudioAesthetic (a.k.a. Nancy Pickard, but not the one who writes all those mystery novels. She's old.)
Summary: Jim loses the one thing that he thought really mattered to him, but finds solace in discovering that everyone around him is just as miserable as he is. But it's just like Jim Morrison said, "No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn."
Rating: There's a lot of swearing and a few mentions of non-monogamous sexual escapades. Babies and Mormons should probably not read it. So I'll say T.
Author's Notes: Why, yes, all of the lyrics in the beginnings of chapters ARE by the Doors! How nice of you to notice. Any of the surviving members/heirs of said band who may have stumbled upon this, please don't sue me.
This is quite obviously not a finished product, so if you find something wrong - misplace comma, misspelled word, the ghost of Hamlet's father wandering in between sentences - do the Good Samaritan thing and let me know. It's what Jesus would do. Also, enjoy it. That's important, too, I hear.
If you're a friend of mine who doesn't use fiction press a lot and who would like to tell me it's dreadful but doesn't want to hurt my feelings - you can leave an anonymous review. For everyone else, just review.
I think I've just about covered everything.
Oh, wait, I'd like to dedicate this first chapter to Chris, because he unknowingly inspired it, and to everyone encouraging me. You know who you are, you lovely people, you.
Don't you love her as she's walking out the door?
Hannah's bags were packed in the foyer again when I came home from work. I stepped over them lightly while sifting through the mail, only casually noting that her old suitcase was getting worn out. I would buy her a new one for Christmas.
This time, I found her sitting at the kitchen table with her hands folded in front of her somberly. She waited patiently, eyes full of unshed tears, while I finished looking through the mail, set it on the counter, and, as an afterthought, got myself a glass of water. The Kitchen Table argument tended to be long and I didn't want to get dehydrated.
"I'm leaving you, Jim," she said when I finally sat down in front of her. "For good this time."
I was once in my high school's production of Hello, Dolly – I was Waiter #4. I mustered up all the acting experience I could and attempted to sound forlorn. I think it came out sounding a bit ill instead.
"Where are you going to go?"
Hannah's forehead wrinkled in astonishment, although I had asked that question at least three times this year. "Don't you care why?"
I shrugged in what I hoped was a compassionate, loving way. "Would I be able to fix it if I did?"
"That's the trouble with you, Jim." There was a pinch in her voice that sounded a bit like a water pipe about to explode. "You don't give a damn. You don't care when people around you are legitimately hurting. Even the ones you claim to love."
"I'm sorry," I said, although I wasn't. Still, it was what I always said when she was mapping out all my personality flaws. It always felt like the thing to say, and it was no good messing with the classics. Nobody tried to remake Casablanca with Bruce Willis, after all.
"You may be sorry, which I doubt, by the way, but you'll never change, Jim," she told me. I thought that was mildly unfair. I changed all the time. Wasn't I one of the first to jump on wearing a suit jacket with jeans to the office? You'd think she'd recall something like that. "You don't care about me, you don't care about us. I barely think you care about yourself. Everything's a joke to you."
"Nothing's a joke to me," I tried to explain. "I take everything seriously. It's just that… well, serious things don't really make much sense, do they?"
"Things are supposed to make sense, Jim." She was getting flustered now. Her cheeks were getting flushed, just the way I liked them too. The girl had a very healthy complexion. "The world is supposed to make sense. And I can't handle someone who not only enjoys things that don't make sense, but actually tries to get things to not make any sense at all! I want my world to follow the rules."
"But it's the rules that don't make – "
"Jim, would you just cut the shit?"
My eyes widened at the outburst, and it wasn't even bad acting this time. I was really surprised. No matter how bad the arguments got, Hannah had never interrupted me before. Especially not during the Kitchen Table argument. During the Bedroom argument, she might, because that was usually about me trying to get out of something bad that I'd called one of her snotty friends, and usually ended in angry sex. Secretly I think she liked when I called them names she couldn't.
But the Kitchen Table argument was more than that. It had depth, profundity, meaning. We had practiced this one for years. It was our piece de resistance. Philosophers in years to come would study its nuances. There would be dissertations written about its effect on the prolonged dispute between anarchy and society, limitations and personal freedom. I think we might even have a go at deciding whether God existed, just through the Kitchen Table argument. It was beautiful and perfect the way it was, and here she was, messing it up.
"Hannah – " I started, but she interrupted me again.
"No, Jim, I'm sick of this. Every time, it's the same fucking argument. It never gets anywhere. And I'm sick of it."
Never gets anywhere? Of course it never got anywhere! It was philosophy at its best and by law philosophy never made any real progress. We were repeating the same things over and over for a reason. It was poetry, for God's sake!
Her eyes softened as she saw me sputtering for words to say while she stood up. I'm not sure how it was endearing to her – I felt that I probably looking a bit like a codfish – but she walked over to me and ran a hand along my cheek.
"Jim, honey, I love you, you know that. But this just isn't working. You're… you're everything I'm not."
"But that's why I love you!" I managed, following her like an abandoned puppy. I was surprised I wasn't whimpering.
She picked up her suitcase and looked at me over her shoulder, golden hair spilling down her back. I pictured her in a trench coat in the rain, lips red with too dark lipstick, and eyelashes impossibly long. You're saying that only to make me go.
"I can't be with someone who doesn't believe what I do." She reached for the door and stepped onto the front steps. It wasn't raining, which was a shame. Would have been a better image.
"You're Catholic!" I cried after her. "You don't believe anything!"
She didn't turn around.
"And then you insulted her religion. Glorious, James, just fucking fantastic. You can kiss that broad goodbye."
Cerise downed another shot. She seemed to be taking the news harder than I was, although I have to say I was cradling my ginger ale with a much deeper depression than usual. But that was why I went to my older sister when bad things happen. Her wild, self-deprecating behavior made me feel better. It seemed the sort of thing that should be done in this sort of situation. Cerise slammed her shot glass down and motioned for another.
"Well, fuck, Jimmy," she said, "maybe this is a good thing. She was boring anyway."
"I'm boring," I informed her, honestly rather surprised she hadn't noticed.
"You're not boring, little brother," Cerise said. She had a habit of changing what she called me every sentence when she was drunk. "You don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't do drugs. You rarely swear. In this day and age, that's actually quite interesting. If you hadn't had sex, you'd be the most interesting person I know."
"Yes, well." I glowered into my soda, watching the bubbles float to the surface. I imagined them as little colorful hot air balloons, and when I took a sip from my glass, I swallowed the balloons and all their teeny-tiny passengers whole. That's what those bastards get for trying to bring joy to the world with their bright colors and hints of airborne freedom. "Nobody's perfect, I expect."
"Fuck that, I'm perfect," Cerise said standing up and staggering a bit. She reached down to take off her heels. "Let's go, you're getting too involved in that ginger ale. I'm cutting you off."
I tipped the bartender and allowed Cerise to lean on my shoulder out of the bar. I even carried her shoes for her, because I am a gentleman. Or because my sister had me well trained. Either way, she seemed to appreciate it.
Cerise carried herself respectively well even when she was plastered, which she rarely was, really. Is it possible to admit that your sister is attractive in a non-incestual way? On the off chance there isn't, I won't say those exact words, but you get where I'm going. Cerise was a very pretty girl, and always had been. Some might even say she was beautiful. I would, but I'm a little biased – I'm always told we look alike.
Anyway, it was more than the way she looked. Cerise just had a way of getting people to be attracted to her. She had wavy dark hair that fell to about her mid back and hazel eyes just like our father's. She was kind of short and had a slightly curvy build about which she had never seemed overly concerned – she said self-doubt was boring. She wore fashionable clothes tank tops and jeans and stiletto heels, but wasn't the sort to complain about how they hurt her feet. She was receptive and interesting and confident, and I guess people respond to that. She never had a shortage of people willing to take her out.
"I'm thinking about becoming a superhero," she explained to me as we walked – or more specifically I walked and she stumbled barefoot on the cement.
"What kind of superhero?" I asked.
"I'm thinking one that wears leather," she replied. "Like Catwoman."
"You can't be Catwoman, there's already a Catwoman."
"I said like Catwoman, Jimbo." She stepped off the curb for a second, but I brought her back up with me. "I'm thinking I'll have a leather costume and the power to stop time and turn hot dogs into silver."
"Why hot dogs?"
"I hate hot dogs. Wouldn't eat them anyway. Silver would be much more convenient for me."
"What about your job? Being a super hero takes up a lot of time."
Cerise snorted in a rather unbecoming way, which she always told me her boyfriends found cute. I didn't believe her. "Fuck that place. They don't appreciate me. They'll appreciate me when I'm saving their asses from giant, alien cockroaches."
Cerise worked at a newspaper as an editor's assistant whose suggestions were rarely listened to. She said that was the reason that newspaper was the least respected newspaper in the city – I thought it was the fact that their headlines usually had something to do with a baby birthed by bigfoot and Uma Thurman. She tended to turn her music up or start the blender or stick her fingers in her ears shouting "La la la!" when I brought that up. It was a weird coincidence.
"What will your superhero name be?"
"I haven't gotten that far," she replied. "I have decided that my lair will be in New Jersey."
"Because that is where justice is truly born?"
"Cheaper rent than New York."
We got to her apartment building and I helped her to her door. I held her up while she rifled through her purse for her keys and unlocked her door. "Would you like to stay the night, kid?"
"Nah," I replied. "I've got work in the morning. And I have some thinking to do."
"You can think in my apartment."
"How would you know? You've never tried it."
"Very mature, Jamie." She pushed open her door with some difficulty and her cat, Walter Cronkite, yowled. "Do me a favor and don't be too upset about Hannah. You deserve better."
I nodded, kissed her cheek, and left, feeling much better than I always had. I knew, of course, that despite the life altering change in the time honored tradition of our Kitchen Table argument, Hannah would be back in an average of 2.6 weeks, but for some reason it always helped to have someone else treat the heartache as though it were permanent. Cerise was terribly gifted at taking other people's bad news seriously, even if it was as mind numbingly predictable as mine always seemed to be. If I couldn't muster up the necessary emotions to feel badly about it, at least someone could. That of course meant that me losing Hannah was truly a tragedy, and that I really did love her.
I knew I loved her, of course, but people these days seem to need reassurance in some sort of action. I'm not the sort of person who is very good at acting (unless it's as Waiter #4 in Hello, Dolly – I was born to play that role). Mostly I sit. Sitting is my favorite hobby, and I'm very good at it, if I do say so myself. However, there's nothing terribly romantic about sitting, no matter how many sitting competitions you won in college.
Girls only swoon over that line once.
I work for our city's branch of a relatively unknown special interest group – Affordable Health Coverage for Underprivileged Musicians. I'm aware that being relatively unknown basically counteracts the idea of a special interest group. We're working on it, okay?
People were sympathetic at work the next day – or I like to think they would have been if I had mentioned anything to them. I pretended to have very encouraging conversations with Barry in accounting, and actually had one with Herman in HR, but that was over my idea to have toys in the likeness of such persons as Bono, Joan Jett, and Johnny Cash in McDonald's happy meals. I suggested it mostly as a joke, but he doesn't need to know that. I still think his idea of a binge drinking James Hetfield action figure was going a bit too far.
As I returned to my cubicle after that eye-opening conversation (I was beginning to hope that Herman would never have children), Jack from next door popped his head over the side. Jack's real name was Gunther, but I called him Jack because he reminded me of a beanstalk – he was tall and stringy and had once turned green after eating bad potato salad from the break room fridge. He seemed to appreciate it – after all, who wouldn't prefer Jack to Gunther?
"Hey, Jim, do you know who Pete Best is?"
I was pretty sure he was in management.
"Nah, man, he was the dude that got kicked out of the Beatles before they hit it big," Jack replied.
So, he wasn't in management?
"He doesn't work here, Jim," Jack replied. I didn't appreciate his condescending tone, really. How was I to know what people did with their lives after getting kicked out of the Beatles? Saving musicians from the terror of medical bills seemed just as good a bet as any.
"What about him, then?"
"Can you imagine how much that would suck? I mean, the dude was a significantly better drummer than Ringo, and yet Ringo got all the money and the glory and the babes. And here's Pete Best being completely ignored, except as the Beatle Who Could Have Been."
I sincerely doubted that Ringo Starr got all the babes. I'd seen pictures of the guy. I decided against bringing that up.
"Is that anything like the Boy Who Lived?" asked Zoe from the cubicle catty-corner to me. "Because if it is, I don't think Pete Best is the guy we want to go to when an evil wizard needs defeated. He's gotta be about seventy years old by now."
Zoe was always pretty practical like that. "I have to agree," I told Jack. "Although maybe he's already defeated a dark wizard and we just don't know about it because we can't do magic. How would we find out about any of that?"
"I'd never thought of that," said Zoe, poking her head above the cubicle walls at the corner. "Pete Best is definitely the man for the job, then."
Jack rolled his eyes and heaved a frustrated sigh. "How did you two even get this job? You people know nothing about music."
"That's why we've got you, Jackie Baby." Zoe grinned at Jack who retreated to his work in disgust, muttering something about "ignorant, office monkey philistines." I think that referred to us.
"Hey, Jim, some guys are going out for beers after work today," Zoe said. "We wanted to watch the game and see if we can get Arnold picked up. He's on a bit of a dry spell since – "
"Birth?" came Jack's voice.
"Stuff it, Gunther!" Zoe commanded, and he fell silent save the emphatic sniggering. She smiled graciously at me again. "You in?"
Don't take this the wrong way, but Zoe is practically a man. She's more into sports and kicking people's asses and getting her buddies laid than any testosterone fueled android I've ever met. And I've met a surprising amount of those. The other guys in the office tell me she's rather pretty, but to be honest, I'm a little too afraid of her to be attracted. She's really good to have in a bar fight, though, but that's another story entirely.
"Good. I invited Darcy already, we'll carpool."
We piled into Darcy's car at the end of the workday. I was only slightly disappointed that Hannah's cousin hadn't called to tell me what a wretched loser I was for dumping her, because sometimes it took a couple days for her friends to be misinformed. Still, she usually stayed with her cousin, so I expected it this afternoon. The call hadn't come. Perhaps her cousin was just losing her touch.
She'd better be careful, or I might end up through this break up with some self esteem.
Jack, who had not been formally invited but was allowed to tag along anyway, was shooed unceremoniously out of shot gun by Zoe. He looked to Darcy for support, but he just shrugged in apology.
"Sorry, man," he said. "Not even Jim gets that seat. Zoe's got boobs."
"Charming, Darcy," Zoe said sarcastically, although the smirk on her face said that she was charmed. Darcy was handsome, so he got away with things like that.
Before I could pile into the cramped back seat with Jack, Darcy pulled me away. "Hey, man, Cerise called me. About Hannah."
She would call Darcy and inform him of something I had been planning to keep a secret until it blew over. And possibly forever. Although, it was a bit unfair of me to not at least mention it to Darcy. Something about being best friends since high school comes to mind in situations like this.
Darcy rolled his eyes. "She wanted me to check up on you, but honestly, I haven't heard a peep from you about this, and I'm proud of you for it. You're not bitching about something we both know is going to resolve itself. And even though I think you need to get rid of that girl – "
"True love be damned!"
"- I know it'll be okay in a week, like always. So if you weren't all right, I'd have to smack you. The emo pussy shit is boring."
I was mildly insulted. I had never been emo. I couldn't pull off the hair. The fact that he thought I could made me feel a bit better, though.
It was a group of seven people who met at the usual bar. Jack stuck close to me and I stuck close to Zoe and Darcy, as I was frankly still a little afraid of Herman, Frieda, a forty-year-old woman in public relations, liked to hit on me when she was drunk, and oddly enough, so did Arnold. I kept telling Zoe that hooking him up with a chick may not be the way he was meant to go, but she ignored me. A lot less noisily than Cerise ignored me, usually, but it had the same effect.
Zoe watched the football game raucously, cursing bad plays and cheering for good ones. It was nice to have a person like Zoe around. You know, someone who understood what the hell was happening in sports. I knew when to yell and when to groan by watching her. It made me feel manly. For some reason it had the opposite effect on Zoe, who turned into a beacon of feminism to the males around her – she had never paid for a drink when there was a game on for as long as I knew her.
"What tattoo do you think all these people should get?" Darcy asked me during a commercial. He was always asking things like that.
"Frieda should have a cougar," said Jack, a little too loudly. Frieda, drunk and flirty, just laughed and hiccupped.
"I would give Herman a hockey mask and a chainsaw." Darcy gave me a funny look.
"You know, he's always creeped me out a bit, too," he said. "What about Arnold?"
We watched Arnold at the bar, completely ignoring the fetching young lass to his right in favor of the high-cheekboned businessman on the other side.
"An open closet door?" Jack suggested.
"How would you know it was a closet door?" I wondered.
"I dunno." Jack shrugged. "You could write 'Closet' above it."
"Why don't we just tattoo 'homosexual' on his forehead?" Darcy scoffed. "Let's try being a bit more subtle, Jackie Boy."
Jack pouted for a moment. "I'd give Zoe a battle axe," he said to make up for it. I was slightly impressed in spite of myself.
"A real battle axe?" Darcy wondered. "Or just a tattoo?"
A stream of curses from the patrons at the bar interrupted us. Zoe was louder than all the men, motioning angrily at the TV and swearing like a sailor. A sailor with Tourette's. The three of us watched from our table in astonishment.
"Definitely… not a real one," Jack said.
Much later in the night, Darcy and Zoe were drunk and Jack was tired (he was only twenty, too young to drink, just a baby, really) so they were allowing me to expound. They even seemed a little interested, which was sweet of them.
"So you're saying…" began Jack slowly, "that selfishness is the only reason people do anything."
"Of course," I replied cheerfully. "Isn't that why you do anything?"
"I do a lot of selfless things," Jack said. He sounded a bit offended.
"Everyone does." It was nice to be able to explain things again. "I'm not talking about people's actions. I'm talking about their motivations. The selfless things we do are always for different reasons than the ones we like people to believe. We're taught as young children that when you do nice things for other people, you feel good too. Do you think people would do nice things if they didn't feel good?"
"What about artists?" Jack countered. "What about doing something purely for art?"
"Art is completely selfish," I informed him. "Artists are creating, exploring, shining through the murk in order to find some amoeba of truth in the world. You make art in order to reach something higher for yourself. Or to gain recognition."
"Yeah, fuck J.K. Rowling!" mumbled Darcy, who, as usual, was missing the point.
Zoe patted Darcy's head affectionately. "Jim, you do realize you have to be included in this analysis of yours."
"Naturally." I took a sip of my ginger ale. "I'm just as horrible a person as anybody else. The only difference is, I'm a bit more honest –"
If there was one thing I would always recognize in the world, it is Hannah's laugh. Her voice was generic enough, a solid alto, rich and not unpleasant, but I certainly did not fall in love with her for the uniqueness of her voice. Her laugh, however… Her laugh reminded me of turning the last page of a life-changing novel. There was a sense of finality, of losing and gaining something at the same time. There was infinity in her laugh.
I told Darcy that once, and he told me I should write for Hallmark. And not in an encouraging way. More like he was mocking me. So I'm not sure how people will take that assertion, but this is my novel, and you people, as Cerise says, can "suck it."
… I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. Well, I did, but I didn't mean to sound so gauche.
Anyway, it was her laugh that I could recognize if I was deaf, dumb and blind (maybe not deaf, for obvious reasons) and it was her laugh that interrupted me. Her laugh entered the bar with a gust of autumn wind and the sound of another person. I was facing the door, but I heard her laugh before I saw her. And certainly before I saw the man with his arm around her shoulders whom she was gripping by the waste.
She stopped laughing as soon as she saw me, but her arm was already frozen around the man's body. The man who was not me. He looked a bit like me. We had the same dark hair and eyes, but he was taller and reminded me a bit of a Baldwin brother. Not Alec, but any of the other ones. But, honestly, you couldn't really mistake us for each other. Oh, Jim, I thought he was you. Yeah, that was not going to fly. That excuse was out the window before she even tried it.
"Jim, I – "
"We don't even have the same build!" I shouted.
Everyone at the table froze, and so did the girlfriend-stealing pretty boy with his grubby, bastard hands all over my Hannah. In fact, the whole bar seemed to stop. Granted we were the only people there except for the bartender and a passed out drunk in the corner, who was snoring very reverently, so everyone seemed to get that this was a big deal.
Hannah stared at me and I stared back and there were a thousand thoughts running through my head. Such as, I loved you and you whore. … All right, there weren't really that many.
As usual, Darcy was the one to break the awkward silence. "Well, shit," were his chosen words of wisdom, but I forgive him, because he's my best friend and that's what friends do. Also, he sobers up pretty quickly in a crisis, but nobody sobers up that quickly.
"Jim, I didn't know-"
Zoe stood up, and Darcy and Jack followed her lead. Darcy a little too quickly, and Jack having no idea what he why he was doing it, but it was still appreciated. "No. You don't get to talk to him right now. We're leaving. Darce, grab him."
Darcy grabbed my arm and stood me up. Jack took hold of the other, which was a good thing, as I couldn't feel my legs. There had never been anyone else before. There had always been me and Hannah, and that was all. She went and cried to her cousin for half a month (on average) and then she came back to me. First she changed the Kitchen Table argument, and then she changed everything. On what planet was this fair? On what planet did this make sense?
Zoe, sparing no expense for those dagger-filled glare books are always talking about, lead the way out the door. Jack was kind enough to wait for the door to close to begin barraging Zoe with questions.
"Who was that?"
"Where are we going?"
"Nowhere. Specifically we're going to Darcy's car, and you're driving us to nowhere."
"How am I going to drive us to someplace when I don't know where it is?"
Zoe thought about this for a moment and finally answered.
A few minutes later, Cerise opened her door and stared at me, limp and being held up by a still a little drunk Darcy and a fatigued and confused Jack, while Zoe glared at nothing in particular.
"Well, shit," she said. "I guess you better come in."
A/N: In case you forgot - please review. Thanks. Hope you all enjoyed it!