I didn’t want to shock Ellen, but, man, this guy was gorgeous! and he was giving me the look, so I borrowed a pen from her and wrote my phone number on a scrap from a placemat I tore off the corner. Ellen is pretty traditional, naïve. I love her but she just totally doesn’t understand how life is, if it’s any different than her sheltered little corner of it. So I was sitting there listening to her describe the current guy she has a crush on but will never get up the nerve to act upon, rolling this little slip of paper around in my hand, waiting for the right time to give it to him.
Which was when we were leaving. Ellen was fumbling around for the tip, her math is atrocious, so she always ends up way overtipping because she’s afraid of not leaving enough. He came over to clear the table and asked how we liked our pizza and I said it was great and his deep brown eyes slid over me and I gave him a good look, too, and discreetly handed him my number. He glanced down at it and nodded his head, just a touch.
Ellen missed it all, of course, and I thought about telling her, but didn’t. He called before we got two blocks, and we set up a meeting for later, after he got off work. I would be standing in front of the restaurant, waiting. His name is Chris. I like a man that doesn’t let his opportunities go wasted. Yes, I do. Especially when he’s built like Chris is. Oh, yes. I couldn’t wait to get down and explore every inch of that body. Does he work out? I wondered, Or is it just how young he is?
Ellen didn’t want to go home, so we went to a bar and she bought a couple drinks. I was broke, no surprise, it’s been ages since I’ve sold a painting, so I was a charity case, as usual. Living at my mom’s house, free rent, free food. My mom’s great, but life there is a little restrictive, I guess you could say.
I was just drinking beer, cause it’s cheap. Being broke is so awkward! I wait around for the go ahead that someone will spring for me. Ellen always pays, but I know she’s not loaded so I drink beer when I’m with her and I drink it slow. I don’t want to take advantage of her. Ellen is a sweetheart, but she can get so annoying, you know? She is so damned painfully shy and she talks about how hard it is to talk to people (except me, we have a bond) and all the things she dreams of doing but is too afraid to try, and I am acting sympathetic, but what I really want to do is slap her and tell her to just do it. Don’t think about it, don’t obsess about it, just fucking get out there and try.
Sometimes it’s hard to hold that down.
She likes to go to expensive places, but she doesn’t know anyone, so we sit alone, her pouring her troubles at me and me telling her things I think she can handle. She is fine with me being gay, but I don’t think she wants to hear any details, if you know what I mean.
We compare notes on guys, but her taste is so totally different than mine. She wants them dreamy and romantic and long haired, like a Heathcliff sort. I want mine athletic and manly. At least we are not fighting over the same guys, ever.
Of course, she also wants them straight, and where I can certainly confess to an attraction to various straight guys of my acquaintance, I don’t want to waste my time lusting after one. That gets you nowhere. I’ve been there, done that, had enough.
Ellen, however, is doomed to moon over some dream guy who has no clue she’s interested, cause she’s not brave enough to let him know.
We walked over to the park at 50th so she could catch her bus, and I ran into one of my students, who was out wandering around with his friends in that way teenagers do. They don’t need a reason to go out, they make their excitement. Rather like me, tonight.
Sean’s parents are getting divorced and he is having a rough time with it, so we’ve had lots of heart to heart talks about various aspects of the situation while we’re working, so we have a bit of a connection going right now because of that. He thinks I give great advice, but all I do is listen.
He is, to be honest, not much of an artist, which is a shame, because he puts his heart into it. I do the best I can with him, you never know, after all, and at least I can instill an appreciation of art in him and ground him in some of the basics. He’s a good kid.
I like being around kids and I will confess I’ve had some impure thoughts because there is something about the innocent, careless beauty of young people that is irresistible, but I toe the line. I can’t go taking advantage of my students. My rule. My personal code of ethics. I try to tamp down the inappropriate thoughts as soon as they pop into my head. Don’t want to go there, I just don’t. I can admit an empathy for those who do. I can see how it happens. I can imagine it every step of the way. Oh yeah. I’m surrounded by temptation every day with these kids, but I don’t let myself act on it. It wouldn’t be right.
Surprised to hear me say that, huh? I do have a few lines I don’t cross. Just a few.
Once Ellen told me I was her best friend in the world. I didn’t expect that. I felt sorry for her. It made her sound all pathetic, I mean, if I’m the best thing she’s got, the others must not be much at all. I’ve tried to be nicer to her since then. You know.
We met at an art show a couple years ago. She does reviews for a little giveaway paper, music, books, art, theater. She’s not trained for any of it, of course, but it’s just a little paper that doesn’t pay anything, and no one takes it seriously. We were sitting there at the gallery having a conversation, she didn’t realize I was one of the artists. She was embarrassed when she found out and tried to remember if she’d said anything harsh about my work. She didn’t, really, but when she worried so much, I figured she obviously must have some reservations and she was worried she’d blurted them out. I just let that go by, didn’t want to deal with it. So everybody doesn’t like everything I do. So what.
At first I thought she was more glamorous and connected than she is. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with her if I’d known what she was really like, to tell the truth, but it took awhile to figure out and by then I really liked her, so I guess it pays to take chances every now and then.
When we met, she had a mad crush on a guitarist in a band she was following around. The band all liked her because she gave them good reviews but the guitarist didn’t realize there was anything more going on than that. He thought she was hanging around cause she liked their music. Meanwhile, everything he said to her that could be interpreted as the least bit encouraging, she and I hashed over during countless lunches and dinners and sessions on park benches.
When he started going out with some airheaded blonde Barbie doll type, Ellen was all crushed and betrayed and despondent. We spent some months minutely examining each step along the way as she tried to get over him. It was a long, slow process.
Me, I would’ve hopped into bed with the next guy – there are plenty of rock guitarists out there, if that’s what she wants, and most are more than willing to get a good bang out of it. I told her all that and we actually went cruising around looking for replacement guitarists several times, but none of them could measure up. What that girl needs is to get good and drunk and get fucked, but will she do it? Oh hell, no. Her heart just isn’t in it. She thinks Prince Charming is going to come find her.
Sean and I talked a little bit and then I went strolling around all the usual places but I didn’t see anyone I know. I sat in the park awhile, but it was a little cold for that. I live so far out it wasn’t worth going home and coming back, and I still had a couple hours to kill. Sometimes it’s a real bitch being broke.
I decided to go see if Louis was home, because he lived conveniently close to downtown. He is another sort of odd duck, I seem to collect them. Louis wa sitting there on his couch watching tv. He offered me some Cheetos and some sticky orange pop. I didn’t tell him where I was going, because he’d want to come along and that would have been awkward. I just told him I came by to see how he was doing cause it’s been awhile. He said he was fine and we sat and watched Pawn Stars, which is a dumb show, I think, but hey, I was out of the cold so who was I to complain?
Louis doesn’t talk much, during the commercials he showed me some of the comic books he’d bought lately and the rest of the time I sat and thought about Ellen and Sean and my current situation and how broke I am and if I should be chucking the artist thing and finding a real job, although I’m not good for much and would maybe end up supervising a fast food place or something and that would be the pinnacle of my life. Not much to write on my tombstone, assuming, of course, that one of my relatives shells out for one, cause I won’t be able to afford it. This is the trouble with devoting yourself to one passion, you don’t have a backup plan to adopt when you figure out you’re not Picasso, after all.
Although I’m not trying to be Picasso, I’m just trying to be me. It would be nice if someone appreciated that, though. You would think after all this time I would have gotten somewhere by now, wouldn’t you? Is there some point where you realize you’re licked? I’m not sure how to tell when you’re there. I imagine it’s when the alternative starts looking attractive, and there’s no way in hell that slapping burgers in paper wrappers will ever look attractive, let me tell you.
This kind of life can sure wear you down sometimes.
Louis carefully handles his comics by the corners and slides them into protective bags and backs to keep them looking new. This is a ritual he’s been taught by other comic collectors and I think he is proud to carry it on. It gives purpose to his life. He buys special acid free bags and backs by the hundreds. He’s got boxes and boxes of neatly cataloged comics stacked along the wall.
I have known him since we were kids. We used to draw superheroes together. He wasn’t bad at it, but he didn’t stick with it. This never fails to baffle me, how someone with talent can just give up on it. Over the years I’ve seen it time and again. He still thinks he can draw better than me, but I have years of honing my skill, developing techniques, living the art. I don’t say anything to him, though. What do I care? If it makes him feel good to think that, let him have it.
I left earlier than I’d planned, I used my mom as an excuse, like I have a curfew or something, like she sits up waiting for me. It was too depressing there.
I walked around downtown a bit, things were quieting down, there weren’t so many people out. The streets had sort of a greasy shine, it hadn’t rained in a while. The air was thick enough to make halos around streetlights.
It ain’t much, but it’s my town and I love it.
I settled myself against a doorway across the street from the pizza place to wait for Chris. Cars went by impatiently, their drivers maybe a little drunk, maybe more than a little. A woman in a turquoise dress and turquoise high heels walked alone down the street. Not a hooker, though, you can tell. Anyways they keep them out of the downtown area. They hang more over by 36th. This was just a woman walking by herself. I kept checking my phone for the time and because I kept checking, time went along slowly, but finally the pizza place shut down and finally waiters started coming out by twos and threes.
I straightened up from my slouch and stepped forward, watching faces.
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Philip J Grant works in graphic design and lives in Kentucky. This is his first published story.
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photo by Angela M Campbell