Swallow the Goldfish

Listen: We were on the 7 train, you, me, and your what's-her-name coworker that you introduced me to in Cleveland once, but never mind her right now because I'm telling a story about us. We were sitting across from a young Asian couple exchanging uncomfortably graphic PDA's that were enough to make you wish that some stereotypes struck better timing when coming true, because maybe then they would have been too bashful to do more than blush, share earphones, and hold hands. Regardless, we were staring at tongues while you told me that your dad once swallowed a goldfish in college.

"Your dad once swallowed a goldfish in college?" I parroted back to you, both out of perplexity and as a favor, because I know how much you love birds.

"Well," you said. "You made it sound like it was a common frat boy thing. And he was in a brotherhood. So…"

When you said "brotherhood" I suddenly thought of your dentist father wearing a paisley-patterned bandana around his forehead, dolla' sign bl$ng around his neck and his old, gnarly knuckles cocked in crooked hand signs across his chest: "Blood in, blood out, motherfucker!" It was uncomfortable. I used your dad as my dentist. I didn't want gang symbols in my mouth, their semiotic violence filling in my cavities.

It was true, though, that I'd introduced the topic of swallowing goldfish into the conversation. I didn't mean to. It just popped up in a wild, "Our LaGuardia Airport's more fucked up than a drunken frat boy party dare to swallow the fish bowl" kind of way.

"I wasn't saying it was a universal standard," I corrected and edged away from your seat, because I was pretty sure that you'd just asserted that you'd do it, you'd really swallow a goldfish.

"Wait, what?" I whipped my head towards you.

"No, yeah," you said as you fiddled with your shirt collar and brushed microscopic dirt off your Keds slip-on shoes. "I'm pretty sure I'd do it, if it was just like a dare. But how I am with all that stuff, like body stuff, is that it really freaks me out. I mean," you defended plaintively, and I slowly edged my way back towards your seat, since you didn't seem bloodthirsty for fin. "I know the acids in my stomach would kill the fish probably really quickly. But I'd just keep thinking about what if it didn't die? And I'd feel it moving around inside me and, like, imagine it eating my stomach lining from the inside out." Then I stopped you because you were fiddling with my split ends again. I told you, I have long highlights and that just happens sometimes, but you never listen well.

So I said, "You could swallow a handful of fish flakes every morning. Maybe that would help it out instead." By then, I was aiming to freak you out completely.

"Yeah, no," you decided. "I guess I couldn't do it after all. Never mind." Then it occurred to me that it wasn't any wonder why neither of us usually consumed two beers apiece for breakfast and then rode the 7 local train all the way out to Junction Boulevard. That day was an exception, though, and you elusive little prick had to be on a plane departing at 2:30. Who books a flight at 2:30 on a Saturday? Elusive little pricks like you, obviously.

"I'm gonna miss you!" you said when you released my split ends. Then you wrapped a long arm around my neck and tried to hug me close, but then I got a better view of the Asian couple making out in front of us and I squirmed at the feeling of hands on me.

"Get off, fish boy," I said and nudged you away.

"I wouldn't, like, chew it," you claimed and smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of your polo shirt.

"Next stop!" I declared, while casting a look of doubt at you.

"I wouldn't! Well...No! I wouldn't. Maybe I just couldn't swallow a live one." You started touching your collar again as you were contemplating the matter. I thought, What the fuck is better about swallowing a dead goldfish?

"What the fuck is better about swallowing a dead goldfish?" I asked. You stopped for a minute and gave me a look dripping with earnestness.

"Well, you eat sushi, don't you?"

"Our stop!" I declared and marched out the opening doors. I started hearing the wheels of your suitcase bump into people behind me, so I knew you had safely followed.

You, as the elusive little prick, had to be back in Cleveland by early evening for a meeting at work. Something about funding, etc., having to do with business and marketing, etc., was too important, etc., for you to take leave for the entire weekend, even though you were technically here on a group business trip already. Somewhere around the city, you had been bumping around with what's-her-face and other young Cleveland professionals, as I strained at my job to remember to fill in all my timesheets with blue ink and not black, as per the request of my office boss.

In total, I got to have you for a drunken phone call from a bar on Wednesday night while I was still trapped at work, and Thursday I got to join you singing show tunes at a piano bar in the West Village – except that I didn't know any show tunes and you were ordering gin & tonic number five by the time I got off work to meet you. And also, your ex-boyfriend was there waiting for us when you led me through the door.

"Look who's here!" you yelled over the bluster of the Broadway musical crowd. You had a cocktail glass filled with melting ice in your hand and you were grinning at me expectantly.

"Oh...my...Wo-w!" I hollered towards your ear and gave Neil a big hug. His face matched my expressive eyebrows and incredulous expression. He and I hadn't seen each other since the trip you both took to NYC during my freshman year of college, since the day and half you both crashed on my hardwood dorm room floor.

While you slept, Neil and I had shared a cigarette on the curb at four in the morning. He told me through the smoke that he was in love with you. You had told me that you were glad to have finally found a friend after moving to Cleveland. He confided that he wanted to come out, publically. You had confided that you didn't care what your father thought, that "people like Neil" were really all right. He said you two had been together since meeting back in your dorm. You had called me crying earlier that year, saying you'd never felt so alone. I believed both of you, and told Neil that you were in love with him, too, because I'd already seen the way you looked at him. I said I could just tell – because I was your best friend and I should know.

A few months after you gathered your shared shit out of my dorm room, you mentioned casually on the phone that you and Neil didn't speak anymore. You had a falling out after he went to study abroad, and you said he wasn't the friend you thought he was. I said I was sorry, that I figured that must be hurtful to discover.

Standing in the jolly piano bar, the three of us crowded together until all the toes of our shoes touched, Neil and I stared across at each other after our overly friendly hug, our shared thought being: Nuh-uh, you go first.

"It's been ages!" he cried over an energetic little ditty about "defying gravity" that had just started in the corner. I didn't know the tune, but you and Neil just looked at each other and rolled your eyes at its triteness, and you told me that places like these always play the same numbers.

"And still, you come to them!" I jested over the music.

"Exactly," Neil chimed in as he sipped his own drink. Slowly, he meandered his way over to the show-stopping music, maybe to roll his eyes where they could be seen.

"The rest of the guys really wanted to," you explained patiently. "I didn't. You know, I'm like really whatever with places like this. But as long as there's drinks, I guess!" You toasted your glass and splashed some watered down gin onto the floor, but that fortuitously reminded you of how much emphasis you were putting on buying my first drink of the night.

"Anything you want!" you promised over the boisterous bridge of a song about "summer nights." I let you fumble around to pull out your zebra-print credit card pouch. "Look at that," you said proudly as you handed me your former high school ID. It was taken back when you still let your hair grow floppy and wore American Eagle t-shirts all the time. You even worked there during senior year, I remembered.

"Impressive," I yelled over a new pianist who knew the tune she was playing no better than I did. "It's weird that Neil's here," I added and signaled for the bartender.

"Oh, I know," you agreed sagely, flagging your own arm. "I didn't know he was coming on the trip until we were, well, on it, you know? But," you put down your hand and dug around your pseudo-wallet for loose bills. "It's not that weird, I guess. I mean it's not as weird as it could be. We have to share a room, but there's a few of us in one large room, so…" Before giving the bartender my drink order, you looked me in the eye and said, "It's not a big deal."

I reached up to grip your shoulder tightly and rubbed the spot after. I patted your flushed, inebriated cheek affectionately and then slapped it a little harder. "Ouch, that kind of hurt," you said and handed me my cocktail. "Your drink," you offered and toasted: "Here's to us! Here's to me! Here's to me moving here and getting my ass out of Cleveland!" We cheered glasses and I tasted sourness on my tongue. I could see Neil's tall frame standing by the piano with a new drink in his hand, talking to some other members of your trip, some of "the guys" whose sole idea it was to come to a "place like this," a show tunes piano bar in the West Village, with apparently no volition on your part. Then you almost spilled my drink when you tipped forward from gyrating to a folky song a little too enthusiastically. I finished half my glass in one swallow, because at certain times, I could become so frustrated with you I couldn't fill my mouth with words.

It might have been because I was a little bit in love with you in high school, and middle school, and third grade, which was the year I met you. You had stolen the sweater of my best friend at the time, a girl whose name I can't remember now, and you wouldn't give it back.

So I hopped off my stool in art class, snapped off my painting smock so as to save it from damage, and proceeded to walk over to your table and sucker punch you in the gut. You promptly started to cry, and through your blurry tears you didn't mind me slipping the sweater from behind your back and passing it back to my friend. Or maybe you didn't notice.

"You couldn't have hit me in the ball sac?" you blurted, doubled over in your seat. "You hit me in the gut and that hurts more!" For you, in third grade, I'm sure it did. Regardless, I went back to my table, snapped on my smock, and hopped onto my stool to continue painting flowers that were supposed to resemble Georgia O'Keeffe's work. Really, they looked more like our regular art teacher had called in sick that day and the TA who usually worked in the library had to come and give us something to do. Chelsea - yes, that was her name! - thanked me all day for returning her sweater, and by the time the next school year rolled around we absolutely weren't speaking to each other anymore. You and I, however, had moved to the same lunch table in the cafeteria and, for the most part, I had abstained from punching you in the gut ever since.

I very much would've liked to while you were in front of me in that piano bar, slurring to show tunes and accepting a shot from the guy called Bryan "with a 'y,'" before turning a chagrined smile my way and saying, "It's not like that's my thing, but at least it's a free drink, you know?" There was still nothing to say to that, except "amaretto sour" when you begged me to pick the next round that you wanted to treat me to so badly – because you hadn't seen me in ten months; because your stay wasn't going to be long enough; because you and I were some of the best friends in the entire world. So close.

I had to catch the train earlier than you, to head home to sleep before going back to work in the morning. I waved goodbye in Neil's direction. He saluted me with his latest drink, and I left behind the glowing Christmas lights that decorated the walls of the musical bar. You were already drunken-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to hit the next spot and live a little in this city. "I'm at home here," you told me as you hugged me goodbye at the curb. "There's no question, I'm moving here to find a better job. I said I would, and it's happening." You pulled your hood up and bounced on your feet in the chilling two A.M. air. "You're here, I feel like I'm already home here," you repeated. Then you looked down at yourself standing in the street light and exclaimed, "Oh my god, these new socks are, like, purple! I thought they were navy!"

I patted you on the back. "Congratulations," I conceded. "Have a wonderful night." I was meeting you in the afternoon when my shift was done, anyway. Plus, Neil was staying out that night, too. He never would've let you get back to your hotel by yourself, unsafely.

"Seriously," you continued to persuade me. "I thought they were blue when I bought them." But you laughed it off and promised instead, "We'll meet up when I'm done with work stuff tomorrow. I'm so glad to see you. I'm really glad I'm here. Get home safe!" You wrapped me in another hug, so I slapped you affectionately again. As I left you standing at the corner, your purple socks seemed almost navy blue in the street light.

By the time I took your hand to lead you and what's-her-face onto the Queens-bound 7 train, I'd seen you once more, but briefly, during the interim of your Friday schedule, between meetings in Soho for young professionals such as yourself, Neil, and your fellow Clevelanders. "At least I'm not an Ohio native," you said after your last meeting of the day. "I'm bound there because I chose a college there and I work there, but I was born a New Yorker and I will come back," you vowed over dinner. Then on Saturday morning, you stood at the subway station, looking idle, staring curiously at all the signs before I pointed in the direction of the one you needed to head towards the Queens airport, from where you'd been arriving to and departing from me since that first trip you made with Neil.

Winding through the halls at Junction Boulevard, the banging of the wheels on your suitcase let me know that I hadn't lost you to an angry commuter whose foot you may have trampled with the weight of your sock-packed luggage. "Look, now they seem brown!" you said back in the dim lighting of your hotel room when I picked you up that morning. "Whatever, I can't win today," you declared and zipped up your bag.

We had made grand plans for our final morning together, but since it happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, we each ended up oversleeping and I barely made it to your hotel room on time to take you to the airport. Because our wavelengths are so lackadaisically similar, I still had to wait, perched on your bed, and watch you fold socks into your suitcase before we shared a glazed donut and chased it with a couple beers, apiece. We headed out to the singular beautiful morning you encountered on your trip to the Big Apple, just in time for your departure. From the hotel, I led you and what's-her-name all the way to the bus in the middle of Queens that would take you to LaGuardia Airport – because as dear as we can be, my friend, there isn't enough gold in the world that could drive me to that sink hole if I can help it.

You wrapped your gangly arms around my neck and told me in my ear, "I miss you. I love you. I'm coming back soon!" I gripped you tightly. I slapped your shoulder. Then I reached up to touch your face and smacked it kindly. I said, "Yeah, I'll see you around next…"

You looked down at your socks and contemplated. "I'll probably see you by…by…"

"Hey, I'll just see you," I decided and smacked you around again. Then what's-her-face started wheeling toward the bus as it was boarding. I heard your wheels turning as I trotted back towards the Manhattan-bound trains, already imagining a rowdy, drunken St. Patty's Day crowd taking over every car. "I'll see you," you promised as I turned away. Neil was traveling back to Cleveland with a different crowd of young professionals. He was staying behind for another day, but because you never stop moving, you elusive little prick, you had a far busier schedule to maintain than anybody I ever knew.

So in conclusion: you suck, Tobias C. Hampton. And I anticipate the fruition of your latest promise to move into my spare bedroom when your Ohio lease ends in May. If not, I may have to walk over to your art table and sucker punch you in the gut again. And if you continue to not let yourself be happy, as in you won't stop moving, won't stop being lonely, refuse to even try, then I'll forever stain your Keds slip-ons when I knock your elusive ass down on the ground. I'll sit on your chest until your polo is rumpled beyond all straightening. And I'll permanently bend your collar as I hold your mouth open, and I will make you swallow the goldfish. So: Listen?