Lacking wi-fi and shame, I entered a Starbucks in Chelsea, Manhattan – one of, I cautiously estimated, about five in the two-block radius.
“Hey,” I flimsily pretexted to the barista, “I’ll have a small chocolate chip frappuccino thingie. And, um, that banana.”
“Chocolate chip?” he repeated.
“Yes, please,” I said, my fingers already typing phantom urls onto my thigh.
“Did you mean the Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino?”
“I. Um.” I looked up at the menu. “Probably? Is there such thing as a…single chocolatey chip?”
“No,” he said.
We stared at each other over the counter. An espresso machine belched, and the world lapsed gently into self-parody.
When you feel like it’s later than it’s ever been
When you’re waiting for some party’s end to begin
When you’re too unoriginal for original sin
Well, it’s still only ten in St. Paul.
If your life – like this poem – would work best at slow pace
If you can’t look your digital clock in the face
If your drink needs a chaser you’re too tired to chase
Hey, it’s still only ten in St. Paul.
You’ve zoned out from your time zone, your lecture, your peers
Midterms of endearment fall flat on your ears
And you know it’s just one hour out of the year
But it’s still only ten in St. Paul
So the night isn’t young and this song’s getting old
So you’ve circa four centuries’ weight to uphold
So you long for a town that can keep in the cold
Where it’s winter again-
-and you freeze with your friends
-and it’s still only ten
In St. Paul.
“Can I tell you something?” Lewis asked.
“No,” said Parker, on principle.
“You don’t take me seriously.”
Parker looked up from the piano and gazed at Lewis. Lewis had Wisconsinite skin, diving board hair, and a face of permanent accusation.
“Was that a response to my response,” Parker began, “or your original th-“
“More of a question, wouldn’t you say? ‘Why don’t you take me seriously?’”
“Well, if I asked if I could ask you something,” Lewis said, “you would have done that awful English major thing where you’re all ‘you just did.’ And anyway, you just proved that I’m right.” He pushed on the tile and did a semi-victory semi-lap around the piano bench in his squeaky sea-green swivel chair.
“God forgive me for asking…” Parker turned back to his sheet music, scratching out a suspended chord. “…but how did I do that, exactly?”
“You said ‘why.’” Lewis leaned in closer, glaring a hole through Parker’s sonata. Lewis was the kind of person who popped personal space bubbles like they were Big League Chew. “If you’d asked if I was asking ‘do you take me seriously?’ then, okay, room for doubt; but you said ‘why don’t you take me seriously,’ implying there’s already a mutually acknowledged lack of…of serious…taking.”
There was a pause. Parker’s mechanical pencil hung millimeters above an unresolved G dominant seventh.
“I can’t believe you said that all in one breath,” he said finally.
“You’re ignoring the question.”
“So it’s definitely a question?”
“It’s a demand.” Lewis leaned back and folded his arms in a manner indicating he’d seen someone else do it once and hoped it would work for him. “I demand to be taken seriously.”
“Semantically, this conversation is ridiculous.”
“See? That’s all I am to you! Ridiculous!” Lewis paused, heard the exclamation point in his own voice, and retreated. “I’ll have you know I have many adult qualities. I can cook. I floss after dinner and food-based sex. I own car insurance. I own a car.”
Parker waited for the other shoe to drop.
“And I’ve never even once made a single innuendo about the phrase ‘golden-‘”
LISTEN TO THIS SONG IT IS BY THE DERIVATIVES IT IS CALLED
Gotye On The Ceiling OR Some Black Key That I Used To Know OR Somebody That I Used To Know On The Ceiling OR Somebody Gold That On I The Used Ceiling To Know
THE DERIVATIVES ARE:
LUKE FASTE: Sexy, sexy production skills; guitar; vocals; pizza, as always
JANE KAGAN: Angry, angry vocals; bass; probably the best hand clapping
MIKE ROSS: Drums, keyboard, FUCKIN’ TAMBOURINE, not vocals nope that’s not me
GIO DE GUZMAN: Motivation; leadership; marketability; emotional zen counseling
Fireflies ‘neath live highlines
Like sparks downspiraling as day dies
Like starry rains for end of days
Like who needs moonlight, anyways?
This valley rallies in the dark
(Like here, around this path-cum-park
Where couples come, more oft than not,
To cum in this park’s parking lot).
The highlines crackle, snap and buzz -
Though frankly, what I fear’s the fuzz
With lights and “Christ! It’s twelve at night!”s
And “why?”s to which I shrug, “Just cuz.”
Just cuz it’s here, just cuz I’m young
(Yet old enough to be high-strung)
Just cuz I’ve memories to keep
Of valley walls a mile steep.
It’s high time highlines had a voice
And though a hometown’s not a choice
These parking lots are all I’ve got -
Sincerely, suburbs, thanks a lot.
Part One of A Thing
A fist slammed down upon Marissa’s desk, which made sense, because it was a Monday and Marissa had a bad track record with Mondays.
She sighed and kept writing in her planner.
“Marissa,” Parker said. Then: “Marissa, don’t ignore me.” And then: “Marissa, you are doomed.”
Slowly, Marissa put down her blue ballpoint pen and let her eyes move – first across the desk, then over the clenched fist which held a crumpled poster, and then up Parker’s skinny, freckled arm before reaching his bright brown glare.
“Doomed?” Marissa said finally.
“Yes, unless your dream is to end up voted Most Likely To Eat Alone At Lunch.”
“I take it you didn’t like the poster.”
“Marissa, please.” Parker began uncrumpling the poster, smoothing it across the Formica face of the desk. “I mock you ruthlessly because I love you.”
“Parker, you mock everything ruthlessly.”
“Can’t help it. I’m the voice of a generation.”
“You’re an ass.”
“Have you seen our generation?”
“Fair point.” For the first time since the conversation started, Marissa looked down at the poster. There she was, perfectly postured in her best skirt and classiest sweater, shaking hands with a beaming Phuc Sinh, Westwood High School’s most beloved and least comprehensible Vietnamese custodian. Under the happy scene, in glossy Impact font, was the slogan:
MINIMUM WAGE IS A SINH!
A vote for Marissa Schlemley is a vote for economic justice!
“I don’t see the problem,” Marissa said. “I worked hard on these.”
“Yes, of course you did.” Parker sighed and perched sideways on the edge of the desk, the room containing no other furniture to sit on. “Because you work hard on everything, because you’re you. And that’s the problem with the poster, Marissa. With the campaign. It’s too…you.”
“‘Too me?’” Marissa folded her hands in that thirty-year-old way she’d been doing since she was seven. “Please, explain. Who is me?” A pause, then: “Yes, I heard that too. Move on.”
“Right. Okay. You. You are…” Parker looked around. “You are this office.”
The ‘office’ in question was actually a practice room behind the performing arts wing of Westwood High. Two years ago, someone had gutted the piano and attempted to use it as a terrarium in which to cultivate ganja. After this poorly-conceived and even-more-poorly-concealed plan was exposed, Marissa – already, as a sophomore, president of three honor societies and founder of a nonprofit organization for children with lupus - had asked if she could use the now-defunct room as an office from which to conduct her affairs. The principal, weary, confused, and a little intimidated, had agreed.
Now the room was as sparsely decorated as it was small. Most days, the office only contained a handful of things: one desk, one chair, one framed picture (Parker and Marissa as crossing guards in fifth grade – Marissa beaming at the camera, Parker attempting to poke a first-grader with his flag), one motivational poster (Marissa was not the type of girl who enjoyed motivational posters, but she feared that one day she would become one, and was trying to ease herself into it slowly), and one Parker and Marissa.
“No other high schooler would create this office,” Parker continued, “and no other high schooler would try to become school body president so they could redistribute wages for staff. No kid will vote for that, Marissa. They will all vote for Kelli Kapowski, and you will be sad, and I will be annoyed by your sadness, because I am a good friend or something.”
“I believe voters want a solid platform,” Marissa sniffed.
“Wrong. You are so wrong. They want Kelli’s platform, which is not solid. Kelli’s platform is squishy, because Kelli’s platform is her boobs.” Parker reached into his pocket and pulled out some more crumpled paper. “See this? It’s her poster.”
Read Part One Here (It’s short!)
“So what’s your image of yourself?” Ben Fritz asked.
“Well, see, the idea is we’re not supposed to have-”
“Not the fake self-image thing,” Ben cut in. “Your real one.”
He waited silently.
“I’m…tall?” I tried.
I snap back to the present.
“I, uh…I’m here because I have a friend who lives near here,” I lie. Well, maybe it’s not a lie, assuming Ben lives near here. And assuming we’re friends. Does it count as projecting a fake self-image if you’re not sure what’s fake and what’s real?
“Oh, cool,” he says. Then we do that awkward laugh-mumble-separation thing you do when you meet an acquaintance at the mall or wherever, and he’s gone again, disappearing over a hill. I wait for the sound of his shoes hitting gravel to fade away, and then I look around.
I’m on a long stretch of wooded path, with that darn running water trickling away to my left. No one is coming towards me, and as Ben Fritz has so helpfully proved, I’d be able to hear it if anyone was approaching from behind me.
And my bladder is seriously full.
I move towards the edge of the path, near the running water. Stuffing my mittens into my pocket, I unzip my jeans.
Then I look both ways before crossing the streams.
By the time the path has wound its way out of the woods, I’ve recognized where I am. The soccer field sprawling before me rings a bell, as does the wooden playground in the distance - but what really tips me off is the giant, honking water tower that rises above me like the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s far less quirky suburban cousin.
I was driven past this park countless times as a child on my way to swimming lessons, and every time I would look out the window at the playground, noting the tire swing and climbing wall and something that looked suspiciously like a puppet theater. Mentally, I would compare it to the small plastic blue-and-red models that were scattered across Apple Valley like a recreational equivalent of Kwik Trip. What, I would wonder, would it be like to live here?
Perhaps I was angsty from an early age. Perhaps, alternately, swimming lessons just put me in a really bad mood. I used to be scared of changing rooms.
In any case, now I approach the playground and wrap my legs around a tire swing. It’s even warmer outside now than it was before, and I yank my left mitten off with my teeth before fumbling my jacket open one button at a time, like the world’s most inefficient playground flasher.
I examine the scene from close-up, and it’s official: those lucky little bastards did grow up with a puppet theater in the middle of their playground. Would that have improved my childhood? Does my childhood really need improving?
I suppose I’m fascinated by the idea of being someone else because I’m not yet sure what being me entails. I like the life I’m leading - I just haven’t figured out who the guy is that’s leading it.
After I think this, there’s a warmth in my chest, and it’s not due to climate change. I’ve taken the first step on a long path.
And come to think of it, it’s a long walk back to my car.
I kick absentmindedly at the wood chips, and then I get up to go. Over by the water tower, the wind makes a flagpole clank in three-four time. Without thinking about it, my left foot locks in to the downbeat.
I follow my path.