by Trent Gleason
“I love you so much, Cal,” Donna said, leaning in closer to me. “I always have…and I always will.”
I loosened my collar a bit, the sweat of romantic anxiety ruining the vibe.
“Wow. I mean, thanks. This is going a lot better than I expected. I refrained from asking you out for, like, eight years.”
“Make love to me, Cal.”
“This is going a lot better than I expected.”
I awoke, covered in sweat. The dull afternoon light poured into my mess of a room. Not this again, I thought as I sat up and massaged my brow. I can’t even get laid in my dreams. I could hear my mother yelling from downstairs. She always yelled a lot.
“Cal! Wake up! It’s one thirty in the friggin’ afternoon! You were up all night playing your games again, weren’t you?”
Well, someone has to save all those helpless raccoon children from the merciless alien onslaught, I thought as I groaned in misery and looked at the time to verify that it was, indeed, one thirty in the afternoon, and that, yes, I did have work in less than three hours. I collapsed back into bed, realizing the time I’d lost, but wanting so badly to return to the land of sweet, bodacious merrymaking that was my mind. Maybe if I fall back asleep I can continue the dream. I closed my eyes and thought hard, harder, harder…
“Cal, I swear to sweet Jesus if you’re still in that bed!”
I strolled down the stairs and into the kitchen, feeling sleep deprived—stomach growling from a fast eager to be broken. Guess I should eat breakfast. Er, lunch.
“Mom, what do we have?” I asked.
She popped her head into the kitchen and grumbled, “Look for yourself.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I replied.
“Don’t you know that I have errands of my own to carry out? I don’t have time to baby you anymore. You’re twenty-two now, it’s about time you—”
“Mhm,” I intercepted as she continued.
I pulled open the freezer: frozen burgers, frozen burritos, frozen pizzas. Processed, processed, processed. Which one would make me feel the least amount of self-hatred? People put veggies on a burger. That’s healthy, right?
“. . . I just think you have a lot of sorting out to do, Cal,” she nagged on. “I just don’t know what to do with you. You hardly work, you stay up all night playing games that you burn all of your finances on. I mean, how are you gonna move out if you don’t save any of your money? And Christ, your room is a mess—”
“Yes, you do make sure to remind me every waking minute,” I grumbled.
Burgers it was. I grabbed a skillet from a nearby cupboard, lit the stove, and plopped the frozen meat puck down. I glanced at the clock.
Ugh. This is taking too long. I’ll put it on high. I turned the knob and the burger responded by sizzling.
“I understand that maybe life has been…hard. Ever since Dylan died.”
I stopped what I was doing to look her in the eyes for the first time in the entire conversation, if you could even call it that.
“Yeah,” I breathed. “I suppose you could say that.”
I didn’t think about Dylan much anymore. I wasn’t sure if it was due to moving on or some other form of denial. Perhaps I’d passively convinced myself that he’d simply ceased to exist.
“It was a tragic thing, but it’s been four years, Cal. Don’t you want to move on with your life? Work toward something? Anything?”
I turned away from her to continue prepping my lunch.
“I mean, you like music, right? That’s a thing you do? Why don’t you pursue that? Ooh, and you’re such a handsome boy, you’d look just great on the stage. Oh! What if you made it on MTV? That would be just…”
Her voice faded from my attention. I suppose I could kick off this meal with an appetizer or two. I fished around the kitchen and settled on some week-old pasta salad, a fresh bag of Doritos, six pieces of turkey lunchmeat, and a Little Debbie’s Zebra Cake, when I noticed my burger had caught on fire. I rushed to turn off the gas.
“Jesus, Cal! Now you’re trying to burn the house down? I mean, good god, child! Why can’t you be more like Lisa’s son down the street? I heard he’s already half way through to getting his Doctorate’s, now that’s—”
“Great, that’s great,” I murmured. I prepared my charred sandwich and dug in. Every bite tasted of self-pity, with a foul aftertaste of lost hopes and dreams.
Face and hair greasy, stomach bloated, and a look on my face that communicated I feel like utter garbage. The only possible cure would be a hot, refreshing shower. I grabbed a towel and my Bluetooth speaker—the essentials. If there was one thing I was sure of in life, it was that jazz music was a true form of spiritual healing. I appreciated other genres of music, but there was something euphoric about the quiet tsk, tet-tet, tsk of the drums, and the wailing of the sax, and the dance of the piano. As such, I turned on my favorite jazz station, started the water, and stepped in.
“You’re listening to Jazz24, broadcasting twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week,” the host crooned. “Until today. Unfortunately, I have some bad news. Nobody gives a damn about jazz anymore, and we’re totally friggin’ broke. We’re being bought out by, let’s see here…”
I could hear the host shuffling through his notes.
“Ahem, 96.9 The Wub, Today’s Wubbiest Wubstep. Sad news, I’m afraid, but life’s a bitch. Meet your new host, Toby Bernstein. See ya on the flip side, folks.”
I felt one solitary tear exit the corner of my eye, lost in the ever-flowing stream of the shower water. A masculine voice appeared on the radio, followed by testosterone-fueled explosion effects.
“Hello world! You’re listening to 96.9 The W-w-w-w-”
Whoever was operating the soundboard was having way too much fun.
“-w-w-w-wub! We’ll be playing the wubbiest wubstep, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, twelve months a year, forever!”
I felt an uncomfortable chill travel down my spine.
“Well, let’s cut the chit-chat and get straight to the bangers, brah! ‘Amphetamines In The Afternoon’ from DJ Williks, blasting through your stereo. Right now. Right here. Forever.”
The following sounds that combusted out of my miniature Bluetooth speaker were so atrocious that in a desperate effort to destroy said speaker I slipped and busted my nose. The stress of the situation made my bloated stomach churn, triggering a violent rush of vomit all over my person. I laid in a pool of blood, puke, and tears, as the bass dropped to an ungodly low-end.
“Cal, you clumsy oaf! Did you fall in the shower again?” My mother called from downstairs. “For God’s sake, child, turn off that garbage!”
Nose heavily bandaged and skin irritated from the hot water, I crawled into my junky Mazda and turned the keys into the ignition. No response. I turned the keys again. No response. “No…no…God!” I whispered as I desperately tried to start the car. I punched the wheel and forfeited my body to fate.
“That’s it,” I moaned. “I give up! Happy now? You win, you cruel, cruel world.”
I drooped my head onto the steering wheel and rested my eyes. Mom wasn’t wrong. I had stayed up all night playing games again, and I had stopped believing in a “better tomorrow.” I could no longer look in the mirror and see a person who could achieve anything as long as he set his mind to it.
I was a husk: a man lacking any drive who clearly missed the train to adulthood, leaving him all alone as a result. It was just that my nagging mother and my co-workers so often disregarded my existence.
I was curious. Would the world really be any different without me? My mom might grow bored with no one to hound. But I was sure she could move on to achieve greater things without me holding her back from making a new life, after being abandoned by my Dad. And, obviously, I wouldn’t be missed at work; they hardly noticed me when I was there. And any friends I once had in the past had either long moved on or passed.
Passed. That’s when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Lying neglected in the corner of the garage was the bike I used to love to ride. Back when Dylan was still around, before the cancer. Memories danced through my mind.
A ding at the door. Opening it to find him standing there.
“Well,” he’d ask. “We going?”
I could never say “no,” of course. Riding into the forest, never looking back. Sitting by the river and talking about life. Something I never felt comfortable doing with anyone else. I knew what it meant to feel true happiness.
I rested my head on the steering wheel and stared at the old bicycle. I forgot I still had that thing. Ugh, you know what? Screw you, universe. Trying to fool me with your nostalgic trickery. I give up. Nothing is going to motivate me to get out of this vehicle.
I continued to stare, reminiscing. Such a little thing, that bike. Seems like just yesterday.
I sighed and looked at the time.
I only had seventeen minutes until my shift would start. Well, looks like I don’t have much of a choice.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, so it took a second to get adjusted as I pedaled along the road. Some jazz would be perfect right about now, if all culture and class hadn’t been wiped off the air by brainless, intoxicated noise. I smirked, aware of how pretentious I was. I stared into the clouds as I rode, the autumn breeze blowing through my hair. Wait a second. Ah hell, I forgot to wear a helmet. That’s like the number one thing not to do when riding a bike.
“Helmets are for pussies,” Dylan’s voice echoed through my head.
Oh yeah, I recalled. I rode until I arrived at Philly’s Fried Filets.
Swipe. Clocked in.
“I need a headset,” I announced.
“Sorry, all taken,” Bobby, my overweight, former high school teacher-coach, replied. “We’ve got a trainee in today. Looks like you’ll just have to manage without.”
Well, great, gonna be an interesting day in the Hole.
I headed to the back of the building and entered my lair, my space, my hole, as they called it.
“The Hole’s open!” I yelled to my co-workers.
I would have typically whispered that into a headset. Such luxuries were not afforded to the Hole Master today. I stood by my window, kiosk activated, ready to take the money of many a hungry customer. A car rushed by. Seconds later, after feeling a surge of neglect, another car passed.
“Jesus Christ,” I groaned as I sprinted up to the second window, where two of my co-workers were gleefully serving our gluttonous customers.
“Hey, are you sending ‘em to the first window?” I asked.
One glanced at me. “Oh, yeah,” he muttered. “Sorry.”
The “Hole” was only open during peak hours, which equated to about four hours per day, two hours per shift. This threw everyone off, with the crew consistently forgetting to send customers to the “first window” and not the second, and the customers themselves completely unaware of its ever being open.
I sprinted back to Hole, having missed two more cars already.
“Ok, no more of this garbage.”
I noticed a car coming around the corner and I opened the window to signal them to me. “Hey there,” I drawled as the driver slammed on her brakes.
It was a sweet old lady. She rolled down her window.
“Yoinks. I almost passed ya.”
“Yeah, people are known to do that,” I chuckled mournfully. “I’m basically the troll under the bridge, stopping you in your tracks and ruining your day as well as emptying your pockets, all in one fell swoop.”
The lady stared at me blankly, with a smile so sweet it gave me cavities.
“Anyway,” I broke the silence. “You owe me $7.84.”
“What about my senior discount?”
“Oh, heh, well I’ll have to go grab my manager,” I said. Then I muttered to myself, “At the other end of the restaurant. To save you a measly ten percent.”
Her stare and smile grew in intensity.
“I’ll be back,” I said.
I sprinted up to the lobby.
“I need a manager! Senior discount in the Hole!” I yelled.
A crewmember tapped me on the shoulder. “Bobby’s takin’ his—” She looked around awkwardly before continuing. “Poop break.”
“Well, I need his manager’s card or else this old lady is going to literally kill me with kindness,” I said.
The crewmember shook her head.
“Can’t help you there, Cal. You know how Bobby’s bowels are.”
“I’d rather not know about his bowels, thank you,” I said frantically.
I sprinted back to the Hole, where the sweet, smiling lady awaited me.
“Sorry, my manager is . . .” I paused to consider how best to phrase it, “. . . preoccupied at the moment. I couldn’t get his card.”
Her malicious friendliness grew tenfold, never breaking eye contact. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead.
“Get outta here,” Bobby growled.
I glared at him with my swollen eye, where the lady had whacked me with her unnaturally weighty purse.
Swipe. Clocked out. I walked out into the lobby, which was mostly empty with the exception of two families and a noticeably attractive girl with a laptop.
“Donna?” I said out loud, entirely by mistake.
She was typing as she ate when she heard me. She immediately looked up at me.
I stood there, frozen in my tracks, speaking gibberish in the hopes of alakazaming my way out of the building.
“Wow,” she chuckled. “Long time no see. I didn’t know you worked here!”
My face turned a crimson shade of red.
“Heh heh, yup. This,” I swung my arms in a violent arc, “this is my place of employment. And this guy is my boss.”
I turned to gesture to Bobby.
“Ma’am, is this boy harassing you?” he asked politely.
“Piss off, Bobby.”
Donna crinkled her brow in confusion, but decided to move on.
“So, what’ve you been up to?” she asked.
“Um, I’m not up to much. Just got off. Work. I got off work. Just now. Like a minute ago. I got off about a minute ago. Work, I mean.”
I stuttered in between gasps for air.
“Oh, cool,” Donna said. “So, are you just gonna stand there like an idiot, or are you gonna take a seat?”
“Oh. Um, yes.” I sheepishly took the seat across from her.
She closed her laptop and put her elbows up on the table. “It’s been forever! Have you been doing ok? I see something happened to your nose . . . and your eye.”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’m doing ok. Kind of had an off day. Old lady slugging me in the face included.”
“Mm. Go on.”
“Well, I had a…weird dream,” I coughed. “Not important.”
“Fair enough.” She nodded. “And?”
“And, my mom was being a nag, you know how she is.”
“She just loves you, man.”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, let’s see, I had a bad lunch, got sick, fell in the shower, lost my favorite jazz station…” I paused to clarify. “The fall happened after I lost my favorite jazz station, just to be clear.”
“Yeah, it really hurt. Losing the station, I mean. My nose is okay.”
“Also, I couldn’t get my car to start, and—” I stopped, debating whether I should even bring it up. “That’s really the least of it. I was reminded of Dylan. Kind of put a wet towel on an already soggy day.”
She raised an eyebrow in concern. “You know, it’s OK to think about him. You guys were close. We were all close, I know. And it sucks. These past few years have really sucked. And to be frank, I’m worried that you’re still not done grieving, Cal.”
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“Not that I’m totally OK yet, either. I dunno, man. I just wish you wouldn’t have pushed me away.”
I looked away from her in embarrassment.
She waved in assurance. “Hey, it’s OK. I didn’t take it personally. I mean, I get it, personal space and all that. But, Cal, are you doing OK—”
“I’m fine,” I spouted, before she could even get the words out.
“I’m fine. I’m,” I stuttered, “I’m tired. I think I should head home. It’s late.”
I got up out of my chair and began walking towards the exit.
I couldn’t handle the intensity of the situation. I left without looking back.
I stared into the night sky as I cycled home, soaking in the beauty: the dark clouds floating by, stars poking through, visible if you looked hard enough. I closed my eyes, allowing myself to hear the world around me. The evening breeze, cars passing, the cricket’s chirp, distant but ever-present. The memories flooded back.
“Cal, I have a…Uh, there’s something. . .”
I remember him struggling to find the right words.
“What is it? Wait, lemme guess. You have a crush on Donna and you’ll ignore these feelings of desire out of respect for yours truly?” I laughed.
But he gave me this look. I couldn’t pin it down at the time. Now, however, I know exactly what it was. Fear.
I started to get nervous at his response… or lack thereof.
“Uh, well, I mean. If you really do like her I won’t—”
“No, Cal. I’m sick.” His voice was shaky.
My eyes widened and my mouth was left agape in fearful curiosity.
“Oh. Um, w-what’s the issue?”
He took a deep breath and stared at the ground.
“It’s cancer, Cal. Leukemia. They caught it late, it’s. . .” His voice shook as he began to break down. “It doesn’t look good, Cal. They’re starting treatment next week.”
He looked up at me, face wet with tears.
My vision was fixated on a soda can floating down the river.
Dylan grabbed me by the shoulders and shouted, “Cal?! Talk to me…”
I slowly turned away from the can until my eyes met his. I couldn’t speak. I tried, but nothing formed.
“Cal,” Dylan started, “if I don’t make it—”
“No!” I interrupted.
“Cal. If I don’t get past this, if this is it. . .”
I couldn’t look him in the eyes anymore.
“You have to keep living. You must live on,” Dylan said, shaking me gently. “If not for yourself, for me.”
“You’ll make it,” I argued. “Don’t talk like this.”
“Cal, denying the very real shit that I’m in right now is not gonna fix anything. I won’t give up, I’ll keep fighting. But, if, if I don’t make it. Promise me. Can you promise me that? Cal?”
Before long, I had lost control of the bike, falling onto the sidewalk pavement and hitting my unprotected head. I gasped in pain from the wound. I could feel it beginning to bleed. I tried to stand up, but between the dizziness and the crippling sadness, I failed to do so. I lay on my back and stared into the night sky as the dim stars went in and out of focus.
He didn’t make it. And I didn’t keep my promise. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I felt a sense of peace ease me.
The sensation of being shaken brought me back to consciousness.
I slowly opened my eyes and saw Donna leaning over me.
“What the hell happened,” she shouted, mid-sob.
I groaned and leaned up on an elbow before answering.
“I just decided to take a nap on the side of the road, I suppose.”
She stared at me, wide-eyed. My mouth cut into a grin and she started to laugh.
“Damn it, Cal,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You had me scared shitless.”
I felt my scalp for the wound. It wasn’t bad, and it had stopped bleeding. “I always did have a hard head.” She told me to shut up before she stood and extended a hand to help me to my feet. I took it.
We threw the bike in the back of her car and got in.
“Still living at the same place?” she asked as she buckled her seatbelt.
“You think I’m good enough to move out of that shit hole?” I laughed.
She glanced at me with a grin and started the car.
“Fair enough. How’s your mom doing?”
I looked out the window. Light raindrops dripped down the glass.
“She’s happy, I think. Ashamed of me, though. For good reason.”
Donna shot a glance of disapproval. “Don’t say that. You’ve always been talented.”
I sighed. “Thanks. But it’s true, I’ve accomplished jack-all in the past four years. I think I just gave up. Y’know?”
“Yeah, I do. University has helped keep my head above water, as of late. I just like working toward a goal. A future. Are you going to school?”
“Ha,” I mocked as I continued to stare out the window. “I think we both know that ‘school’ isn’t my strong suit.”
“You,” Donna said as she gave me a little shove, “don’t give yourself enough credit. You’ve been beating yourself up for way too long. I think it’s time you start acknowledging how awesome you actually are. And you are, Cal. Both Dylan and I always looked up to you.”
I was flattered, but I tried to hide it. I loved her. And she clearly cared about me. Why I had pushed her out of my life all these years continued to make less and less sense as I reconnected with her.
We stopped at a red light. I turned my gaze away from the window and met her eyes. I opened my mouth as to say something, and eventually words spilled out.
“I’ve missed you, I’m sor—”
That’s when she kissed me.
We pulled up at my place and she turned off the car. I didn’t want to get out.
“It’s been really nice catching up.” She looked at me with a smile and quickly looked away.
“I promise to wear a helmet next time,” I joked. I took off my seatbelt and opened the door.
“Hey,” Donna said softly as I stepped out of the vehicle. “Don’t be a stranger.”
I blushed and nodded slightly. “You know where to find me.”
We stared longingly at each other for a good minute or two. She reminded me about my bike, helped me get it into the garage, got back in her car, and drove away.
I entered the house slowly as I looked around nervously. No sight of mom. Thank God, I thought as a light flicked on behind me.
“Where have you been?” my mother scoffed. “Your curfew is ten.” She stood there in her bathrobe, arms crossed.
“I ran into an old friend,” I said with a soft smile.
My mom eased up a bit, and chuckled, “Well, that’s nice. Was it a girl? Oh my God, was it Donna?!”
She gasped. “You two were so cute back then! Wait, Cal.” Her voice became stern again, “Is that dried blood in your hair? And oh my, your eye!”
I started sprinting up the stairs. “Goodnight, love you!”
I collapsed on my bed and closed my eyes. I soaked in the silence. The soft pitter-patter of the rain against my window eased me into sleep. But I woke with a smile and grabbed my phone. Donna had texted me goodnight. I replied and fell back onto my pillow, staring at the ceiling. You know, I thought as I raised my phone to my face and looked at the time, I think I’m gonna set my alarm from now on.