I originally wrote this story two years ago, but here is an updated version. It's part of a larger collection of interconnected short stories that I started back in 2008, but I think it can pretty much stand alone.
The Life of a Video Store Employee
The first time she came into the video store, it was to rent some chick movie.
Ben Lucas watched as Julian Blood typed "Find General Spanky" into the computer system. Julian insisted that General Spanky was the title of an actual movie. Ben said he had to see it to believe it.
Neither of them heard the girl approach.
She cleared her throat.
Julian sighed. "May I help you?"
Her hair was yellow fire, yet it was her black puffy coat that seemed to engulf her. She placed a hand on the counter and he noticed that her nails were painted an enraged red. He knew immediately that he was in for an exercise in entitlement. He encountered women like her at least ten times a night. It was one of the downsides of working with the general public.
"When Harry Met Sally," she said.
He stared at her blankly.
"When Harry Met Sally," she repeated, agitated now. "Is it rented out? Or are you one of the only video stores in the state that doesn't carry the classics."
He turned to Ben. "Do you know what she's talking about?"
His friend shrugged. "Never heard of it."
"You've gotta be kidding me." She looked from one to the other.
"Is it an adult film?" Julian asked. "This is a family store."
"Can you just look up the movie for me, please? I really don't have time for this shit."
"Sure," Julian said. "Let me do that for you." He typed the words "Kiss my ass, Biyatch" into the system while Ben, to his credit, kept a straight face. "Sorry. Looks like we don't carry that title anymore."
"Unbelievable," she said. She turned and headed for the comedy section at the back right-hand corner of the store.
The minute she was out of earshot, Ben was on his case. "Did you see the way she was looking at you? She was checking you out."
Julian looked up. The girl was standing near the wall-length window, watching him. He turned away. "Shut up. Shouldn't you be out back performing top secret managerial duties?"
"I thought I'd hang out front with you. You know, make sure you're not giving the custies a hard time."
"Hey, if she wants to watch a fucking Meg Ryan movie, that's her business." Julian clicked on General Spanky (1936) to see if there were any copies in the store. "But don't make me an accomplice."
Ben stared at him for a moment. "You just love saying no to people, don't you?"
"To overly confident assholes like that girl?" Julian thought about it for a moment. "I suppose I do." He pointed to the screen. "Here we go. Look at this."
Ben barely glanced at the computer. "By the way, guess who called last night?" He paused, and when Julian didn't respond, he said, "I'll give you one hint. Her name begins with 'H' and ends with 'olly'."
Julian rolled his eyes.
"She's been calling a lot lately. I asked her why the two of you broke up, but she wouldn't tell me anything."
This was, of course, a lie. Keeping her mouth shut was hardly one of Holly's virtues.
The girl approached them again. She slapped a DVD down on the counter and sighed. Julian backed up so that Ben could take his place behind the cash register.
"You'll have to excuse my friend," Ben said. "His mother and father were brother and sister, and so he's his own cousin. It's the sickest thing I've ever heard."
She looked at her nails. "Right."
Ben picked up the movie she'd selected. "Airplane! The Sequel. Good one."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't my first choice."
He ran the scanner over the DVD's barcode. "Did you know that for three dollars more you can get a second movie, a popcorn, a soda and a box of candy?"
"Do they pay you extra to say that?" the girl asked. She caught Julian's eye. He went back to alphabetizing the returns. "I'm not interested."
She began to show up at the video store on a regular basis, and over time, she stopped coming up with excuses for being there. Julian would be out on the floor, putting away the movies, and he would catch Ben and the girl talking at the front of the store. He would briefly wonder if she was asking about him, and then he would be disgusted with himself for even caring.
"I told her you were single," Ben said one night after she'd left. He hovered over Julian's shoulder as he checked in the returns. "You don't mind. You're always bitching about how much your life sucks. So I told her the four of us-Jane and me and the two of you-could meet up for pizza sometime."
The computer double-beeped. A message popped up on screen stating that the movie Julian had just scanned in was seven hours late and the customer would be charged the full price of a rental. "Nice," he said.
Ben must have thought he was responding to him because he went on. "And listen to this. She says she's not looking for anything serious. She just went through a nasty break-up with her boyfriend of six years, and she says she's in no hurry to go through that again. You and Amber should get along great."
Julian made a face. "Amber?"
"That's her name. Why? Do you have a problem with the name Amber?"
He shook his head. "Whatever."
He would go out with this girl, this "Amber," if that would make his friend happy. Girls like Amber were easy. You asked them about life, about college, about the subjects they had majored in. If they told a joke, you laughed. If they told you about their dead cat, you empathized. And then, when you were done doing all of that, you offered to drive them home. The last time Julian had let Ben set him up on a date, he'd dropped the girl off at her place at 9:00, told her it was nice knowing her but that he had this raging case of herpes that wasn't quite under control yet so he didn't think it was a good idea to kiss her good night. "My doctor says there's still hope for me, though. Maybe next time."
The expression on the girl's face said it all. There would be no second date.
Instead of going straight home, he'd stopped by his sister's place and spent the night on her couch. He'd blown into the apartment he shared with Ben and Ben's fiancee at 7:00 the next morning, grabbed a donut from the plate on the table and asked if Jane had gotten around to cooking a real breakfast yet. He still remembered the way his friend had looked at him - as though he were a god among men.
Of course the truth never came out. Most girls didn't bother with a guy who had a venereal disease or who had had his sexual organs shot off while defending his country. The list of reasons why chicks didn't wanna fuck you was actually quite endless. Other guys didn't seem to have any problem making themselves as unattractive to women as possible. So all he had to do was to pretend to be every guy but himself.
"Are you worried about what Holly will think?" Ben asked.
Julian shook his head and went back to checking in movies. The mistake he'd made with Holly was that he'd been honest with her. He swore to himself he'd never make that mistake again. "She's not my girlfriend anymore."
"She still calls sometimes when you're not at home. The last time she did, I told her you couldn't speak to her because you were locked in your room, questioning your sexuality."
Julian's smile was tight. There was no way he could turn down the date now, and they both knew it. He remembered the days, back in high school, when Ben would have been more passive aggressive with his attacks: maybe saving his gay jokes for those times when he could be sure his friend was within earshot, or else making a point to add extra emphasis to the question when asking Julian about the new girl in town or the hot substitute teacher. It was easy enough to answer such questions in the way that was expected of him. He never failed to say the right things. It was doing the right things that had him at a loss.
"So." Ben hesitated for a moment, before asking, "Do you want me to tell Amber you're not interested, or will you go?"
"Yeah." He put down the scanner. "I'll go. On one date. A chick's a chick, right?"
"Knowing you," Ben said, "one night is all you'll need with this one."
Ben's fiancée, Jane, though, had a different take on the matter. "Do you even know who this girl is, or do you just assume she's not an asshole because she's cute?"
"She's got a point," Julian said. He was drinking a coke at the kitchen table, and Jane gave him a dirty look. Julian had been living in the apartment with them for almost five months. It was the awkward living arrangement of all awkward living arrangements, and sometimes Jane would make some passive aggressive remark designed to drive home the point that he'd overstayed his welcome the moment he'd walked through the front door. Usually, he would take the hint and leave the room. That night, he went into the living room and turned on the television. He kept the volume down low so that he could hear them arguing in the kitchen.
"You need to stop," Jane said.
Ben slammed the refrigerator door. "It's just pizza."
"Yeah, well, it's weird. You and I are going to be marrying in less than two months, and yet you spend more time obsessing over his sex life than focusing on ours."
"It's just pizza," Ben said again. "This girl is cool. I talked with her. She just moved here from Florida. She's staying with her grandmother, and she's trying to make some new friends. That's all."
Ben let Julian tell Amber about the sordid history of Lucifer's Oven while they sat around a booth in the back left-hand corner and consumed a large pepperoni with the world's greasiest crust. Amber barely touched it. Julian was already on his third slice.
Lucifer's Oven had once been called Luigi's Pizzeria. It had been previously owned by a tiny Italian who bore a comical resemblance to Stalin and his doughy brother who looked more like Fat Chef. When the brothers had died, the restaurant had passed into the hands of a family of Pagans. The red and green booths had been too "Christmasy" for their liking, and so they'd redecorated, using an orange and black motif instead. Rumor had it they slaughtered animals out back and served them up on a pizza twenty minutes later.
Amber looked around, and then turned to Julian. "So, do you come here often?"
He gave her a half-smile over his glass. "Not exactly." Ben made a face at him, and he took the hint. "So, Amber, you said you're from Florida?"
"Yeah. I moved here permanently right after graduating from Bowdoin."
"You went to Bowdoin?"
She seemed pleased with herself. "Yeah."
"Wow," he said. "That's impressive." An awkward silence followed.
"You know, Amber," Ben said. "Jane and I met at Lucifer's."
"Really?" She leaned forward, resting her arms on the table.
"Julian and I were going to the same university at the time," he began.
"We've known each other since middle school," Julian said. "What are you talking about?"
"True. But you and I didn't start hanging out until years later. In middle school, you and your girlfriend were tied to the fucking hip."
Julian gave him a confused look.
"You know who I'm talking about."
Ben turned to Amber. "When we were kids, he had this friend named Shelly..."
Julian wiped the grease off of his fingers and stood up.
"Most guys would have tapped that in a heartbeat," Ben was saying. "Fourteen years old, and she was all for it. But Julian..."
He turned a corner, walked past the cheerful teenager behind the register and pushed through the double doors.
"Hey," Amber called out behind him.
He turned as the doors slammed shut behind her. "Hi." He dug his cell phone out of his pocket. "Call. One second please." He rifled through his texts, but was only greeted by missed messages from Holly. He deleted them one by one without reading them.
The two of them stood where they were for several seconds without talking. Amber shifted from foot to foot, her hands stuffed in the pockets of her jeans. "Is this about Shelly?" she finally asked.
"If you don't want to be here, you can admit it," she said. "You don't have to be an asshole about it."
"Nah. I want to be here." He went on deleting the texts. "I'm really interested in hearing more about Bowdoin." He turned off his phone and put it back in his pocket.
"Were the classes good?"
"Well, it was college." She shrugged. "You want to go get Jane and Ben? I'm ready to go."
He dropped Ben and Jane off at the apartment first. His friend leaned into the lowered driver's side window.
"Well. I guess I'll see you later," Julian said before Ben could say anything. He rolled up the window as he backed out of the driveway.
Amber lived about two miles away from him. Her grandmother's house was dark, aside from the glow of a TV set in the far left-hand window.
"She's probably waiting up for me," Amber said. "I'd invite you in, but she's a little nervous around strangers."
Julian nodded. A familiar silence fell upon the car. When several seconds passed without him saying anything, she finally reached for the door handle. "Bye."
She looked over at him.
"I just got out of a bad relationship." It was the first time he had spoken about Holly in months to anyone other than Ben. And suddenly, there was so much more he wanted to say to this girl who already knew more about his current relationship status than his own Facebook friends did. He wanted to tell her that the reason that he'd broken up with Holly was because of something he did. Or rather, because of something he couldn't do. He wanted to tell Amber that he was damaged. She couldn't save him. No girl could. And it was all right. He wasn't looking to be saved.
"I know," she said. "Ben told me. We're just hanging out. No pressure."
He didn't know why, but he had a feeling she'd be hanging around for awhile, and he figured he should warn her ahead of time that she had a better chance of achieving world peace than she did of having any kind of relationship with him. He figured it would save them both a lot of trouble if he just let her know up front.
"Amber?" She turned to him, and he hesitated. Maybe it would be easier if he approached the subject in a different way. "Are you a pacifist?" he asked.
He rolled his eyes. "Never mind."
"You know, I just got out of a bad relationship myself," she said, as she opened her door. He didn't know how to respond to that. Was he supposed to empathize with her? Pretend that they had something in common? He said nothing.
His sister didn't seem all that surprised to see him on the other side of her door at 8:00 at night. "Hey," she said. She opened the door further to let him in. "I'll make up the couch for you."
Leila got extra blankets and pillows from her closet, and he carried them over to the sofa. "I don't know why you bother living with Ben and that girl if you're going to end up spending every other night at my place," she said from the doorway of her room.
He paused in the middle of taking off his sneakers. "It's personal, L. I don't want to talk about it."
At first, she said nothing. And he held his breath, wondering if she would come to him, hoping that she wouldn't.
"I'm tired," she finally said. "I'll see you in the morning."
He watched until the door closed behind her, and then he turned toward the television set. He shrugged and picked up the remote.
He and Amber didn't speak for another week. He made no effort to send her a message on Facebook or call her. He didn't even have her phone number. Ben may have given it to him at one point, but he'd probably just thrown it out without realizing.
They'd agreed to be just friends, so he didn't think there was any obligation there, but he wasn't sure. Not that he was too worried about Amber or her expectations. She hadn't tried to reach him either. She was probably too busy fucking around with the local boys to bother. He wished her the best with that.
But then, not long after they'd gone out for pizza, he received an email from Holly.
For the past two months, he'd received emails from his ex-girlfriend almost daily; they all said the same basic thing. How dare you ignore me? How dare you treat me this way when all I ever did was give you the most precious gift I have to offer - my body.
This message was different. In this message, she made it clear she'd been talking to Ben.
So I hear you have a new Facebook friend. She's really pretty. You clearly have good taste…
His ex-girlfriend was a big fan of the ellipses. He didn't know why. It wasn't like she was one to hold back. Restraint, thy name was not Holly. Maybe she had meant to keep her message to him more calm and reserved than usual. Maybe she'd intended to show him that she could be a mature adult when it suited her. Maybe she'd tried and failed. She'd ended the email with:
I hope your slut makes you very happy.
He deleted the message.
Julian understood the appeal of the opposite sex. Ever since he was a kid, there was nothing that turned him on more than a girl who desired him and was willing. It was one thing to think about it. What he didn't get was how people could actually do these things.
First of all, sex was messy. And not just psychologically. It was literally messy. Practical things like that made a difference to him.
Of course he was also a big fan of a little thing called "dignity" and another little thing called "self-respect." His father hadn't taught him much about what it meant to hold oneself in high regard, but he had certainly taught him well what it didn't mean the first time he'd lured his young son into the basement with the intention of performing lewd and lascivious acts on his person. So Julian was starting at the bottom and working his way up. He didn't know what it was that he wanted, but he'd always had a very keen sense of what it was that he didn't, and that was as good a place as any to begin.
He'd only been with Holly once. It had happened unexpectedly one Saturday night the week before she'd left for college. He was half drunk, and she was ruthless in her pursuit of him. He was sure there must have been some curiosity on his part as well, but the funny thing was that he couldn't remember much of the encounter at all. It was like he went completely crazy the minute he saw naked flesh.
Holly told him bits and pieces after the fact. Apparently he'd done things to her that she'd only read about in magazines. "Virgin, my ass," she'd said.
She'd tried to get him to do it again during Thanksgiving break and again at Christmas time. He told her where she could go.
But it wasn't like he was a complete dick about it. So he didn't wanna fuck her. There had to be other things they could do together that didn't involve him violating her body for their own demented amusement. He figured they could spend their nights watching movies and eating out. Hell, he'd even blow his life savings to take her to see those chick flicks that kept coming out each month at the local theaters. On their second date, he proved his devotion the only way he knew how-by sitting through a Patrick Dempsey movie without once going all Mystery Science Theater on that loser's ass. What other guy would do that for her, and not expect at least a hand job after the fact? If that wasn't commitment, he didn't know what was.
After the movie was over, she'd turned to him and said, "Is it me, or is it getting a little hot in here?"
"It's you," he assured her.
There was no third date until almost six months later.
When they did finally meet up again the following summer, it was as if she had gone through some kind of weird metamorphosis. Gone was the aggressive temptress she'd once been, and in her place was a compassionate young woman who's primary concern was her boyfriend's happiness and well-being.
For his 20th birthday, she'd bought him a book called "Survivors of Incest."
"What the hell's this?" he'd asked her.
"Don't be mad at your sister," she said.
"I didn't know I needed to be."
She made this floundering gesture with her hand before saying, "I kinda forced her to tell me. I was worried about you. But it's good that I know, right? Now we can have an open and honest relationship."
"Open and honest?" He didn't know if he'd ever had an open and honest relationship in his life. He collapsed on the couch and lowered his face in his hands.
Holly sat down next to him. "It wasn't your fault, you know. You did nothing wrong."
Well, that was a relief. For a while there, he'd thought he'd actually asked to be anally raped by a 40 year old man purporting to be his father.
"It wasn't even about sex," she reassured him. "It was about power. Read the book. It talks all about that."
"Hey." He glared at her. "You don't have to tell me what it was or wasn't about. I'm not stupid. I've seen Deliverance."
Her hand slid along the inside of his thigh and he felt conflicted. "We don't have to rush into anything if you don't want to." He wanted to, but why did she have to be such a whore about it? "Just because I've already been with you doesn't mean we can't start over and take it slow."
He hoped she didn't seriously plan on becoming a therapist because he never contemplated suicide more times than those few years they were "together."
His family talked about how wonderful it was that he had found love with a childhood friend. And all the while, he prayed to God that he would be killed in a car crash on the way to work. Maybe, if he was lucky, he'd be immediately sent to Hell. Only then could he be free of this thing called "love" once and for all.
She tried for years to turn him into a man he was not. And then, on the night of her college graduation, as they sat on her basement couch with a huge gap between them that was growing wider with each passing day, she told him that enough was enough. As far as she was concerned, he could go fuck himself.
It wasn't a bad suggestion. It would have actually been a lot less humiliating than fucking her.
"Did you tell Holly about Amber?" Julian asked Ben at work the next day. Some new hire was handling the registers for them while they sat on boxes in the back office and pretended to be working on the cycle counts.
He'd been wanting to ask the question all day, but he'd kept putting it off. It shouldn't have been a big deal. He didn't know why it bothered him so much, other than the obvious fact that he didn't want Holly knowing about every little thing he did.
"I thought it was a good thing," Ben said, crumbling up a sandwich wrapper and tossing it across the room into the trash can. "Now she knows you're not interested."
"She can know I'm not interested without knowing my entire fucking life story. Did you tell her I spent the night at Amber's place?"
Ben shrugged. "I figured since you and Amber are Facebook friends now that she'd find out eventually. Why did you add her anyway?"
"She added me. I didn't want to be rude." He couldn't help it. Ben laughed, and he found himself smiling. "Shut up. I was trying to show good character."
Julian unscrewed the cap of his soda. "Don't talk to my ex-girlfriend about me, OK? Just stay out of it."
"She called the other day looking for you. All I said was that you didn't want to see her anymore and that you wanted to see other girls. I don't know what the problem is."
"No problem. I didn't say there was a problem. At least not anymore." He stood, hoping Ben would take the hint that he'd said all he wanted to say on the matter and that the conversation was over.
Julian hesitated in the middle of stamping a ridiculous $9.99 sticker on Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Just before the voice had snapped him back into the living world, he'd been wondering who in their right mind would pay $10 to see Lindsay Lohan play herself. Why wasn't this shit in the $5 or less bin already? There had been more to that train of thought, but he supposed it was lost forever now. He looked up and forced a smile. "Hi."
Amber dropped her wallet onto the counter and shuffled through the movies she'd picked out. "Which one of these are any good?"
He held out his hand. "Let me see."
He felt her eyes on him as he scanned the titles. You've Got Mail. P.S. I Love You. Don't Say a Word. God, she had shitty taste in movies. "What are you doing after work?" she asked.
"I was thinking maybe we could go across the street to Tim Horton's. For coffee."
He cleared his throat and handed the movies back to her. "If I were you, I wouldn't bother with any of them." She gave him a blank stare. He nodded toward the DVDs. "You asked my opinion."
She bit her lip. "Right." They were silent for a few moments. "I should be going," she said.
"See ya." He went back to pricing.
"Wait." She turned and slapped the counter with the palm of her hand. He looked up, startled. "I know I said we'd just be friends and all. And that's cool. I just want to know where exactly that leaves us. Do we talk when we see each other? Say hi and that's it? Maybe hang out? I can even do casual if that's all you're looking for."
He smiled, but didn't say anything.
"You're still not over the girl, are you?"
Now she was starting to piss him off. "Excuse me?"
"The girl. The one who broke your heart. She did break your heart, didn't she?"
"I don't want to talk about it," he said.
Ben liked to tell their friends that Julian was the Ted Bundy of serial
daters - meaning he could only fuck strangers he didn't care about. It was true. Aside from the fucking part, which was not literally true.
Ben thought that his recent break-up with Holly was the root of his problem with women. As if his life was a movie and the incident with Holly was some kind of flashback meant to explain everything. As if Holly was his girl with long, dark hair.
Holly didn't even fucking have brown hair.
Before moving in with Ben and Jane, he had lived with his sister in her one bedroom apartment and slept on her pull-out couch. It was the perfect set-up at first. He wasn't looking for a relationship, and there weren't a whole lot of guys who could put up with his sister's neurotic shit.
But he didn't mind her so much. They split the rent, and occasionally he even got dinner out of her. She'd learned everything she knew about cooking from their father, which meant she was a master at boiling water. If he was in the mood for pasta, she had it covered. If he wanted a hamburger, some fucking protein, he could go haul his ass to the Wendy's across the street.
There were many nights when they'd stayed up late watching movies in the living room. He introduced her to the classics such as The Godfather, to the genius of Kevin Smith, to Friday the 13th Parts 1-8. She laughed when the girls in the short-shorts got an ax in the back and cheered on the demise of Kevin Bacon. "Bacon's death scene in Part 1 is symbolic of his career," she said, and they toasted to that. She drank orange gatorade and he drank Samuel Adams. She took one look at his beer bottle and said, "Gay."
He loved their heart to heart talks on subjects such as whether or not being a slut made one worthy of death. He told his sister that if someone ever decided to make a horror movie about her life, her character's virginity would make her virtually unassailable. She told him that if someone made a movie about his life, it would be banned in most American states for homosexual content.
They took great pleasure in finding new and improved ways of sexually humiliating each other, and maybe it went a little too far at times. At the end of the day, though, it was when she began to call him "honey" that he decided they had most definitely crossed the line.
And so he'd moved in with Ben. He went along with his friend's hook-up schemes, even giving his approval of the hot girls who lived on the first floor, making suggestive comments when none were called for, and as far as Ben was concerned, suggestive comments about hot girls were always called for. He'd talk about the things he wanted to do to them, and when that wasn't enough to satisfy his friend, he'd make up fake chicks to text on his phone. Chicks with names like Shawana Blomy and Ivana Fokker (who was Dutch and scored him extra points with Ben for that alone). And all the while he was texting messages to Leila about how he wasn't really up to much and that he'd stop by after work if she wanted to see him.
"I don't want to be your fucking sister," Holly had texted him shortly before he'd broken up with her.
He could just imagine her firing off the message with the intensity of a person who knows that there's no longer any hope for her but can't restrain herself from getting in one final to hell with you.
He didn't kid himself that he was doing important work. His job was just a job. He rented out movies to people who had nothing better to do on a Friday or Saturday night than stay at home and stare at the TV. He put up with people's shit, and he realized that, when they yelled at him for not having any copies left of the latest new release, it wasn't anything personal. They were just angry people. Angry at the world. And they had to let off their steam somehow.
Occasionally, though, there were moments that got to him.
He remembered a specific incident from three years before, when they'd finally made the full transition from VHS to DVDs. A woman came into the store with her husband. She must have been about sixty years old. She wanted to rent some classic. But she didn't have a DVD player.
"I'm sorry," he told her. "We don't carry VHS anymore."
She walked over to her husband. They talked in hushed voices. There were tears streaming down her cheeks.
This was the memory that stayed with him. He knew this would be the one moment he would remember even when he, himself, was sixty years old.
He wondered why people couldn't just be granted what little peace they could get. He wondered why it always seemed to have to be on someone else's fucking terms.