Empty Middle (1994)
Chris found a really great deal on family-size macaroni and cheese, so he bought a whole case of them--that’s 45 boxes. When he’s feeling generous he’ll make a box or two, and share it with everyone in the house.
So when I get home from class, John is sitting on the front step, eating macaroni and cheese. He has poured some Mountain Dew onto a plate, feeding it to the bees that live under the porch. There are five or six of them on the edge of the plate, sucking at the sticky liquid. It’s still kind of cold out; they aren’t moving very quickly.
“Hi John,” I say.
“Hey Jen,” he says.
I sit down next to John, putting my book bag up on the porch.
“Ain’t that something?” he says, “I thought they all died in the fall.”
“Naw, when they’re close to something warm like a house they just go into torpor, they slow down all winter. Anytime it’s warm enough to to come out “ I gesture vaguely at the plate.
“They come out.” He smiles.
“They come out.”
We listen to the snow melt and run off the eaves into the muddy puddles around the house. The bees on the plate at our feet are taking turns drinking as much Mountain Dew as they can, then flying back under the porch to tell their sisters where to find this trippy sweet flower full of caffeine. I take off my sunglasses and look at John; he blinks and looks at his feet. This is the way I like to think of John, when I’m not actually with him.
He looks back in my direction. “Chris made macaroni and cheese.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“Three boxes,” he says.
“Hmm, too bad. I ate on campus.” I get up off the step, brush off the back of my jeans and grab my book bag off the porch.
Inside, Tiny Toons is on television; Chris and Doug and some other people we know, Lisa and Andy, are sitting on the floor in the sunlight. They have the TV hooked up to the stereo, so I get Tiny Toons coming at me from four directions.
Lisa looks up at me, swallows a mouthful of Mac and cheese. “Hi, Jen.”
Doug says, his mouth full, “did you see the road accident?”
“The road accident? Out on Vine?” He pitches his sentences up like questions. He does this pretty often, now that I think about it.
“No, Douglas, I didn’t.”
He opens his mouth full of slimy orange pasta tubes. “It looked like this.“
“Nyuk nyuk. Fuckhead.“
“Thanks, honey,” he says.
I glare at him. We’ve talked about him calling me “honey.” Or “sweetie.”
I sit down between Andy and Lisa on the dusty wooden floor, put my book bag between my knees. I don’t take off my jacket. “What’s happening?”
Chris says, not turning away from the set, “Hampton and Buster and Plucky are Teenage Mutant Ninja Slugs.”
“Like Ninja Turtles, get it?” says Lisa. Well, duh. Lisa is on Prozac, like lots of people I know. Sometimes she’s a little too perky for my tastes.
Anyway, it’s that kind of day. Thursday. Spring, finally. All my roommates and some other people I know are sitting around watching cartoons, eating. Today, I like where I live.
That night, Chris and Doug and I go to LaunDryLand. We sit on the flat couch-thing, with our shoulders all touching, looking at The Simpsons on television, and at the laundromat families in the real world. Chris is studying, reading some book about micro economics or something. Doug’s an art student, so of course he has nothing better to do than look at The Simpsons.
A little girl keeps coming over and staring at us sitting on the couch. She’s 100% white trash, with curly blonde hair in a bad home haircut. She has a snickers bar smeared all over her face and hands. Underneath all the grubbiness, she’s very cute; I can tell she’ll be a pretty teenager. She’ll discover how nice it is to have so many boys looking at her. She’ll get pregnant, not know the father, maybe have an abortion, probably not, probably wind up just like her chain-smoking twenty-three-year-old mother. Someone who was beautiful and adored for four years, but now she’s stuck at LaunDryLand, where college kids who have all the money and all the fun buy your kid snickers bars.
Doug leans towards her. “Hi there!”
The little girl smiles at him, brown slime dribbling down her chin.
“What’s your name?”
She grins. She doesn’t look down, or run away or anything. She just stares at him and smiles. This, I think, is the typical female reaction to Doug.
“You’d be very pretty, I think, under all that candy.”
“Here, honey, have some paper towels and wipe your face off?” He gives her the paper towels he had put in his lap to catch pieces of chili dog. She takes the napkins, clumsily wipes her face.
All this time, Chris hasn’t looked up from his textbook. I know he’s interested in micro economics, but it wouldn’t outrank The Simpsons. Besides, he hasn’t turned the page for a long time.
The white-trash mother has finished folding her laundry, and yells at the little girl to come here. She comes over and grabs her by the head, not roughly, looks at Doug intensely, studying him, trying to figure out if he’s a child molester. “Thanks,” she says, guessing that someone so cute couldn’t be a pervert. “Come, on, Sara “
They walk towards the door, the mother overloaded with clean laundry. Sara, grasping the back of her mother’s coat with one hand, turns to look back at us.
Doug waves, shaking his hand side-to-side with his arm jutting straight out. “Good-bye, Sara!”
Sara takes her other hand out of her mouth and waves back. The glass door shuts behind her and her mother. Chris looks up from his textbook to catch the last five minutes of The Simpsons.
On Friday, I skip my biochem lab and go home early. The weather today is windier than yesterday, colder. I don’t feel like doing very much except going home and taking a nap.
When I get home, I don’t take off my jacket and throw it down in a heap by the door with my book bag, like usual. I walk directly up the stairs to my room. Doug is sleeping in my bed.
I sit down on the edge of the bed and take off my shoes, drop them loudly on the wood floor to wake up Doug.
“What’s the matter with your room, anyway?”
Doug, exhaling slowly, rolls onto his back and squints at me. “I like the smell in here?”
“Don’t leave dirty dishes under your bed, and maybe your room wouldn’t smell so bad.”
“No, honey, I mean, this room smells like you.“ How can I not like the guy?
I take off my jacket and sweater and jeans and slide under the covers with Doug. He scoots to the edge of the bed--it’s not a very big bed, not a queen-size or anything--and I press my legs up against his. He’s not wearing any pants either, of course, and his legs are hairy and warm.
“Youch! You’re cold!” He presses his cheek against mine.
“I just got back from class.” I smell the side of his neck. I see what he means about coming in here to smell me--he smells foreign and rough, equal parts sweat and cologne, maybe a little acrylic paint in the mix.
He starts taking handfuls of my hair, sniffing it. “Mmmm “
“You weirdo! What is this, some kind of fetish or something?”
“I love y--love your hair.” That sentence didn’t start out “I love your hair.“
“Douglas, don’t start that again “
“I’m sorry, sometimes it just slips out “
I slide my hand in circles around on his back. I press myself to his body and feel a lump against my thigh. “I’m getting everything I need out of you, without all that all that, you know love stuff.”
“I think you’re emotionally distant.“
“I think you’re oversexed.” And I kiss him.
I get up very late Saturday, mid afternoon sometime. The sun is shining, but it’s windy. Chris is in the kitchen, making blancmange. He’s very hung up on blancmange; it’s the only real food he knows how to cook, and he only does that when he’s depressed. I like to call it “bland mange,” because it doesn’t taste like anything.
John is sitting on the couch, practicing the bass line to “With or Without you,” which is very simple: eight notes, a chord change, eight notes, a chord change, eight more notes, another change and eight more notes, then the first chord again. He’s not plugged into the amp.
“Show me how to do that,” I say.
He slips the bass off, lowers it over my shoulders. “Sure.” He stands behind me, with his hand on my right hip. He guides my left hand onto the right spots on the neck. “Now pluck with your first two fingers.”
I plunk some random notes. “This is all backwards.”
“That’s because you’re left-handed. Don’t think about it. Just do the thing with your left hand, and make it sound like Adam Clayton.”
And wouldn’t you know, I do. I’ve never touched a musical instrument in my life, and here I am, sounding like Adam Clayton. I can see why John likes the bass so much: it’s so substantial. It hangs low on me, even though I’m pretty tall, because John’s very tall and wears it low besides. When I swing my hips, the bass bangs against my pelvis in time to “With or Without You.”
Later that afternoon, lots of people we know--Krista and Christene, and Allen and some friend of his (Jack?), and Lisa and Andy of course--show up to watch Star Trek at 6:00. The blancmange is done by now, a whole huge pot of it, and Chris shares it with all the guests, although I notice he doesn’t have any himself. We sit on the floor in a circle in front of the TV, eating blancmange.
After Star Trek, we watch COPS, in stereo.
I wake up Sunday morning around nine o’clock, unable to move my head in any way that doesn’t hurt. I put on some clothes off the floor that don’t smell so bad, and walk slowly downstairs to the sink, where I down a large glass of water and four Advil. It’s a good morning for a walk; I pull my hair back into a ponytail and put on a jacket.
At the Catholic church on X street, a few families are showing up for early Sunday mass. They stand beaming at each other, talking about pot lucks or whatever, shining slightly in the sunrise.
I cut through the radial park along ninth street, where a young father wearing a flannel is popping up flies for his daughter to shag. I can’t quite get last night out of my head. For I while, I walk very quickly along Sun Valley Road, feeling embarrassed. A lot of “what was I thinking?” runs through my head.
Here’s what happened last night: I slept with Chris.
We had a party of sorts, which started with a few folks leaving after COPS to see the Sissies and Straw Dog play at Duffy’s. But there was a cover, so they went to Mum’s Liquor and bought some Black Label on sale, and a bunch of cheap vodkas. Pretty soon people we didn’t know began showing up, and it turned into a party.
It’s not like I was fabulously drunk or anything, I only had a few vodka sours. I was talking to Chris and began to feel sorry for him. He’s not very good with women; great with money, sure, but lousy with women. He’s a real nice guy, though, really generous, just...shy. And he has a lot of angst, which the vodka just made worse. So I was hugging him, then pretty soon I was kissing him, then we wound up in my bedroom naked.
I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I just lay on my back, playing with Chris’s hair and smelling him. Aside from the vodka, he smelt clean--like the soap aisle at a drugstore. It didn’t fit in my room somehow, which smells ripe. I burn a lot of incense and have pot pourri and all, but loads of dirty laundry, too, and I don’t think it’s a bad combination. Some people like the way my room smells. But Chris’s smell didn’t fit. It seemed powerful and antiseptic, like it was washing all the ripeness out of my room. When he got up to go to the bathroom, I locked the door and wouldn’t let him back in. He stood outside my door, tapping on it, demanding to come in so he could get his clothes. I lay awake most of the night, listening to Johnny Cash CDs.
I sit down on the guardrail of the Sun Valley Road overpass, looking away from the road. The sun is pretty high now, and warm on my back. I pull my hands into my sleeves. I’m looking west, across Oak Lake and the Salt Creek floodplain. With a splash of wings, a flock of Canada geese rises, honking, off the still water of the lake. The snow has mostly melted, but remains in pockets underneath the boxcars rusting on the old Mo-Pac line. Four or five cars pass behind me on Sun Valley Road.
I realize, looking at the messy tree-dotted industrial flatness of west Lincoln, just how empty this place is. It sits at the center in the United States, in the middle of the richest and most exciting country in the world. I like to think of my life like this, that I live in the empty middle. Exciting things are always happening around me, in every direction. Exciting things happen in New York or Los Angeles; shit, exciting things happen in Denver and Chicago.
Doug has art showing at the Coffee House; Chris is an economic genius who will one day be rich; John plays bass guitar; and all of that is exciting. Exciting things happened yesterday, definitely, and pretty soon I’ll graduate, and exciting things will happen then. But right now I’m sitting on an overpass, looking at the muddy town where I go to college, in the damp chill of early March.
When I get back to the house, John is sitting on the porch, reading a comic book.
“Don’t go in there,” he says.
I push open the front door. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he shouts at me.
Inside, Chris is sitting on the couch, his glasses off, the TV blaring. He holds an ice cube, pink with blood, against his swollen lip. The whole left side of his face is a big yellow bruise, he squints out of his left eye. His knuckles are scratched raw.
“What happened?“ I say.
Chris doesn’t even look at me. He breathes heavily and unevenly, wheezing.
I throw a pillow at him; he ducks halfheartedly. “Hey fuckhead, what happened?“
“What do you think?”
“I think you need another ice cube--”
“You have to tell Doug about us.”
“He knows about last night.”
I throw down my jacket, running towards the basement door. “Don’t flatter yourself, Chris.”
The basement is Doug’s space. It has a concrete floor and no ceiling. He has a carpet laid out in one corner, which he calls his bedroom. The rest of the basement is full of boxes and easels and half-empty tubes of acrylic paint.
Doug has lined up all his paintings of me along one wall. His hands are covered with red paint, so is his face. He’s wiping the paint off his face and hands and spattering it on my paintings.
“What the fuck, Douglas?”
“Why’d you fuck him, Jen?”
I realize that it isn’t paint all over his face and hands, it’s blood. His nose is broken and blood runs down his chin, drips onto his shirt. This worries me more than a little.
“Don’t Doug, you need to get to a hospital--”
“I don’t need the stupid hospital.”
“Lay off the manly act, Douglas.”
He wraps his arms across his stomach. “Why’d you hafta go and fuck him?”
There’s a regular river of blood running down his chin. My heart jumps into my throat. “Doug, you really need to see a doctor.”
“I love you, dammit!”
“Don’t be dramatic, Doug. Look, I’ll drive, okay?”
He sits down on the floor. “I just want you to love me “
“Okay, you win. I do.”
I bend over him, pushing a mostly-clean turp rag at him. “No. I just want to get you to the hospital.” He takes the rag and puts it over his nose. I practically yank him up the stairs.
Chris is still sulking on the couch. “Oh sure, take his side.”
“Don’t start, Chris.”
John rides in the backseat, with a roll of paper towels, which he hands to the front seat when Doug needs a fresh one.
“Who started it?” I ask out loud.
“Doug,” says John.
“Me,” says Doug.
“Well, you really got your ass kicked.”
“Do you really love me?”
“No, I just said it to make you feel better.”
Doug sniffs. “Thanks a lot.”
“I guess I love you, but I don’t love love you.”
John snickers, looks out the window.
“It’s a sisterly thing, really. I shouldn’t have slept with any of you. I really shouldn’t have.”
On Monday, I run into John coming out of the Union, and we walk home together. For a few blocks, he tries to stay on his bike, backpedaling furiously in the lowest gear, but I’m a pretty slow walker. By the time we pass the convenience store, he gets off his bike and walks it between us.
We cut through the schoolyard of the abandoned Junior high.
“Hang on,” I say, sitting down on the cracked front steps of the school. “I have something in my shoe.” John folds his arms and leans against his bike.
It’s another one of that kind of day, I think, working a little piece of gravel towards the hole in the toe of my sock. Clear; thawing. John and I are wearing sunglasses; we can hear the cars passing through the slush on Vine street, but not very loudly. Somewhere a dog barks.
In the schoolyard, some crows caw at each other, almost as if they are talking. One really large crow picks at a piece of something like food, a french fry wrapper or something, and he’s telling the other crows this is my french fry wrapper and back off, man, or I’ll peck your eyes out.
John grins at me. “Ain’t that something?”
Three smaller crows rush the larger one, who grabs the french fry wrapper in his beak. With a dry rustle of wings he turns and climbs into the air. The others, startled, follow in a rush. The crows’ noisiness cuts rhythmically at the silent air, their ragged forms now dark points against the bright empty sky.