He owed $1,000 to the IRS. How did that happen when last year they paid him over $2,000 for the same job and expenses? Something went wrong. His company had fucked up the paperwork. Those accountants miscounted the numbers, and Chris was bad with numbers. He couldn’t say what was right or what was wrong about it, but he did know that he couldn’t afford to pay the IRS the lump sum. The best way, or the only way, for him to pay them was in increments such as fifty dollars a month. But he couldn’t do it, so he slummed it after paying the whole grand. The IRS thought he was living comfortably, but he hadn’t lived comfortably since his childhood.
His mother would pay him without even making him do chores. He blamed her for what he was as an adult, expecting handouts that would never come. Everybody wanted his money, but nobody wanted to pay him. The ardor in the workforce for such a small pay was never gratifying. He was a modern-day slave, who suffered a much different and much more subtle way than the olden day slave. He didn’t see, and would never know, the gentlemen who were cracking the whip.
Not only that but he also spent money like a fool, which had made its way into his adult life. Every time he had more money, he squandered it on alcohol and strippers and poker tournaments at Indian Casinos, just like when he was a kid who squandered it on tapes and CDs and junk food and movie tickets (and those movie tickets hurt the worst: twelve dollars for a movie that would disappoint him two hours later). Now that he was an adult, he couldn’t even bring himself to go to the movie theater. He based the merit of a film by how many cigarette breaks he took before the credits. The last movie he saw was some hokey film about patriotism. His mother asked if he was having issues with his bladder, and then she would catch a whiff of the tobacco on his clothes. Either way, he couldn’t just sit there and wait in that movie theater with all those bad actors and their little button faces onscreen.
He needed instant gratification. He thought about gratification under the marquee of that theater by waiting for a caterpillar to crawl up one of the movie posters. When the caterpillar stopped halfway and wouldn’t move, it was a major disappointment. Whatever it was. So he wasn’t foolish. He was the opposite.
Movie theaters made him sick. They reminded him of the time he spent in Chicago right after high school. He had never saved money for so long: a whole year’s allowance that was granted to by his mother. He was to visit his Lori, the first love of his life. They would write each other each week since the past summer when they met in Morro Bay. He wasn’t even that physically attracted to her. She had acne vulgaris all across her face. Her black hair felt like a black spider’s web that swallowed combs. But she played volleyball, and she had the thighs for volleyball. He loved thighs in high school. But most of all, he had finally met a girl who believed in him, and he felt something new that he wanted to last forever. He even believed it would last forever. He pictured the wedding, and the celebratory toast, and the kissing at the altar, and the permanence of love, and all the other pageantry that went along. So he kept writing her, all through senior year, every week.
He no longer cared about all the girls at his own school who would ignore him every day, now that he was saving up to see Lori that next summer, once high school was over and he would become a biological man. She would write him with different pen colors, which aroused him by the surprise. She even sprayed the envelopes with her perfume. Her letters were so big, bright, and bubbly. His favorite color she used was the color pink in one letter where she described how she would kiss him all over when he went to see her. He was still a virgin at the time.
And he would stay a virgin after that trip. By the eighth month of correspondence with Lori, she wrote him a letter of a starkly different tone. This letter was written in black ink. The words weren’t cursive; they were taut between the blue lines. Instead of sexy or lovely or handsome or my love, she addressed him with: Dear Chris. The letter was dreadful, and much shorter than her usual letters. Most of her letters went on for three or so pages, but this one didn’t even go a page. She called him a sweet guy, a caring guy, and, worst of all, she wrote the line that would gnaw at him for years to come: that someday he would meet the woman of his dreams, and that she was out there, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. She ended the letter not with Love, Lori, or Sweet Dreams, Lori, or even Love Ya, Lori, but Sincerely, Lori. Chris was as much confused as he was hurt. He wondered what he had done. Only a week ago she had written him her most intimate letter. In fact, the letter was so intimate that he had hidden it in the very bottom drawer of his bedroom dresser, so if one day if the Feds showed up to search the house they would’ve overlooked it. Or even worse should his mother find it. Yet so passionately he kept it entombed, he couldn’t read it ever again: her letter read worse than any horror story he could ever imagine.
There was one horror story he read in a children’s book of horror stories about a man who was bitten by an evil beetle, and the beetle left him paralyzed in his chair for the rest of his short life. And once the man was paralyzed the rest of the colony of beetles showed up and began feasting on the rest of his flesh. The bites felt like little staplers biting his skin. It was another form of Chinese Water Torture, except it was happening all over his body. Chris would’ve rather lived through his torment than to read that letter ever again. But if he tore it up and threw it in the trash or cremated it in the fireplace or with a match, he would’ve destroyed all sanctity, as if he would die or be damned for the rest of his life should he it be destroyed, as if the letter were symbiotic. It was just kept.
There was, however, one cheerful part of the letter that brought him hope. She said she still wanted him to fly out there to see her that summer—as a friend. So that was what he decided to do. He had already saved up enough money for a plane ticket after all those months of staving off his urges to buy all those compact discs and movie tickets, and to reject his friends’ offerings to go eat pizza—all that were his only true friends. He had several more months to save up for fun money in Chicago.
Come July, he flew out there by himself on Delta Airlines—the same airline that had one of its planes crash ten years ago in 1985, in which its passengers died. When he left the tunnel, and entered O’hare, as nervous as ever, there she was, with eight friends. And Tommy, wearing an Indianapolis Colts jersey of Marshall Faulk. Number twenty-eight, just like his age. Lori had dumped the boy she had been writing to for a year for a twenty-eight-year-old full of dumb lucky happiness. When Chris went to hug her, Lori gave him a strong pat on the back. And when Chris went to kiss her, she pulled her head, presto, enough for his lips to miss her head alone. He had spent a round-trip ticket for two weeks in Chicago. He, the friend, the poor friend seeing his love, was to stay with her and her big Italian family. She avoided him the whole time. If they were caught in a room together alone, she would leave. Chris had to find things to do on his own. So he would sneak out of the Florentines’ house at night to go for walks.
They lived near a lake by the woods. He would walk deeper into the darkness where he could hear more animals stir. There had to be some hungry animals in that part of Illinois that could go for a sad human. He didn’t want to die. He just wanted to be maimed by a wild animal, so Lori could feel guilt over what she had done. Well, he did come across something. It had four legs and big ears, and it panted hard like something that had traveled several miles afoot just to eat something worth the exertion. When Chris saw it in front of him, he laid himself down in the dirt, closed his eyes, and waited for whatever it was to begin eating away. The creature did press its nose against his arm. It licked some of the salt from Chris’s elbow. Chris just lay still, full of fear. This was a foolish mistake. What was the use in getting maimed over a girl like this. What was she worth? She was worth getting what she deserved. Well, whatever that animal was—Chris still couldn’t tell—it sensed his despair, and he must’ve tasted like a rotten pear. It furthered itself in its travels for something better to eat.
So Chris was stuck with Lori. Eventually he would have to go back to that house. That wasn’t to say that Chris didn’t enjoy the rest of Chicago. The city was beautiful. He took the train to downtown all by himself and explored the architecture. He rode to the near top of the Sears Tower and looked down on this ant farm of urbanites, all of which were moving along and bumping into each other towards some fruitless destination.
But her family was nice—they were insulting, but still from the midwest. Lucky Florentine, her father, used to be a middleweight boxer. One night, Mrs. Florentine cooked them meatballs and potatoes. Lucky led the conversation at the dinner table because that’s what the father was supposed to do. He told Lori that he hated Tommy because he looked like a rapist. But he liked Chris. He asked Chris if he was gay, right in front of Lori.
“Dad!! How could you say that?”
“It’s OK if he is. I ain’t got a problem.”
She threw her napkin on the table and ran to her room.
“Get back here!” he said. “Supper ain’t over. You better finish your pop.”
Chris was of course winded by that insult, but he took it back because Lucky used the word “pop” instead of “soda.” How could he be offended by someone who called it pop.
In the mornings, Mrs. Florentine made him a better breakfast than for the rest of the family. Chris sensed her pity, and he resented it, but he did like the extra pancakes.
One night, after a week in Chicago, her Cousin Jenna talked him into going camping with Lori and her friends.
“If you won’t go, I won’t go,” she said to Chris. She rubbed his arm too. Jenna was much more beautiful than Lori. She looked as right and lustrous as the polished keys of a piano.
So he went. Tommy was there, too. They sent up a couple of tents near a lake, and they all smoked pot and took acid and drank whiskey. Only four could fit in each tent. Chris shared one with two of her cousins and an autistic man from their catholic church.
Chris didn’t partake in the drugs, not even the whiskey. Alcohol was classified as a drug, too, even though it really wasn’t. Even at eighteen he still hadn’t touched either. His father would’ve made him feel worse than he already felt. Once everyone including the autistic friend were well inebriated, they all left the tent for the other tent to play a game of charades. But Chris stayed where he was, too depressed to be around anybody. He rested in his sleeping bag, or at least tried. He always had problems sleeping since puberty. Those times pronounced the worst of fears. His body was tired, but his mind kept running wild. There was the anger he had towards Lori, and Tommy, and her parents.
She and Tommy entered his tent, and crawled over to the next sleeping bags.
“Good, he’s sleeping,” Tommy said.
But Chris wasn’t sleeping. He was pretending. He closed his eyes and shaded himself in the frogs and crickets. And them. They kissed and rubbed through each other in the next sleeping bag over. Chris wanted to run away, but he also didn’t want them to know he was awake. There was even a stab of curiosity. He wanted to hear the rhythm of sex. So he heard. On the whole, it was from Tommy, who moaned as if he were doing reps at the gym, where Tommy said he went the most. Tommy was impressed by himself by how much he could bench. But Chris didn’t hear much from Lori. He could sense that she felt wrong about her feelings. But he could also sense the hollowness in her drunken state, and that she was just right enough to continue through. Well, the sex went on for most of the night, far away from where the friends and cousins were playing charades. At one point it sounded like rape, but Tommy fucked as if he were still at the gym. That moment was worse than her letter or the dream of the man who was eaten alive by electric beetles.
Once the morning came, Chris realized he had fallen asleep, but just for a couple of minutes, it seemed. The rest of the campers entered the tent. Chris felt someone in his arms with tight legs and a tight back; her hair pressed against his nose. But when he opened his eyes, he saw that she wasn’t Lori but Charlie, her little blond friend who was bisexual. They were both in their underwear. He had no recollection of doing anything with her. Charlie’s boyfriend came in with donuts, and he saw his girl with Chris in the sleeping bag. Hawk Feather was in a rock band of the same name. He sang lead of course. He had the long hair and the beads and the wristbands. Every time that Chris had seen him, he always dressed like Glenn Danzig, wearing the same black leather vest with nothing under it. He had watched his band perform in Lori’s garage. All they did was play the same Led Zeppelin song over again: “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t the whole song either; it was the beginning. Once they were done with the beginning, they started over at the beginning again. Now he was worried that Hawk was going to attack him for sleeping with his girlfriend. Instead he offered him a donut from a baker’s dozen in a pink box. Chris willfully took one, but just to keep the peace within the tent. He didn’t hate Chris, just like Lori’s parents didn’t hate Chris. It was out of pity. He knew what was between Chris and Lori, just like his girlfriend Charlie knew what was between them.
Chris was the most pitiful man in Chicago. He had to leave soon before he would do something stupid. He, along with eight of her friends, went to see a movie. The movie was terrible. It was about a mentally challenged man whom Chris related to. He hated the way the man was portrayed. The man was pitied. Even after he ran across the country and played table tennis in the Olympics and met the president, he was still pitiful—looked down upon. The love of Chris’s life, the one he had been writing notes to for an entire year, had chosen to sit the farthest away from him as possible. She sat in the aisle seat, while Chris was left for a seat close to the middle. That was her plan. But he did sit next to Jenna. She wore red as Lori wore tan. She had everything Lori wished she had, and yet she wasn’t Lori. She had never written Chris a letter, and Chris could bet that whatever letter she would write him, it wouldn’t have been as good as Lori’s. He couldn’t shake the love he had for Lori even though it wasn’t worth his pain. He denounced his own hatred for her because of how much he had fallen for her. But it didn’t mean he was helpless. After a week away from home, in a strange, faraway city, jilted and stranded over love, Chris took the initiative for revenge, even if it was revenge only to Chris. He slipped his hand up Jenna’s thigh and kissed her neck. Jenna pushed him away as if he were a dumb furry spider. It angered Chris all the more, so he tried again. But that time, Jenna stood up and yelled at him for all the patrons to hear: “stop touching me.” The whole crowd seemed to have switched its notice from the tramp onscreen to the tramp in the crowd. All of them except for Lori. She kept her head pressed in her hand, just looking down at her knees. Chris had suffered many humiliating encounters, but they all had their different hues. He couldn’t just apologize to Jenna and her friends and sit back down with her, he had to escort himself from the theater as his own usher. Of course he had the problem of sitting in the middle of the aisle, so he had to trip over everyone’s feet. What an ignoble mistake, and Chris still had a few nights left in Chicago.
He skipped the rest of the movie and waited outside the marquee. The summer rain was pouring in Darian, Illinois. It wasn’t the rain in California. The raindrops in Chicago were hot, thick, long, and syrupy, and they attacked him like furious magnets. The most pitiful thing to do at the moment was to wait for his group to meet him out there, so he fought through the rain. He didn’t know the address of the Florentines, but he had memorized Lori’s phone number, and so he looked up the address in a phone book.
Her family was still up: her mother, her father, her younger sister. They were doing crosswords or watching TV or sitting in their rooms talking to their friends on the phone. Chris sat in the dark kitchen, just staring out at the rain. He wore that wife-beater as if he had never taken it off since his years in the circuit. Then he was a cop. He had retired from both, so now he was just an Italian lump in a wife-beater. He sat with Chris at the kitchen table. Without even asking, he poured Chris a shot of frozen lemon cielo.
“I don’t drink,” Chris said.
“Shut the fuck up and drink it.”
So he did. It tasted like a Lemonhead candy with peroxide. He caught a buzz not a few minutes later.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Lucky asked.
“I’m not feeling good.”
“Something happen there at the movie?”
“So what was it? A fight?”
“It’s your daughter.”
“Yeah? What did she do this time?”
“Come on. Just say it. I won’t knock you out.”
Chris couldn’t think of the word before seeing Lucky in that wife-beater. After Lucky poured him a second shot of Lemon Cielo, and Chris drank it down, Chris said: “She’s a scumbag.”
Lucky nodded his head.
“Most of them are.”
And that was the salvaging part of his whole trip in Chicago.
Chris carried that truth with him back to O’hare the next morning. He had taken a cab there without saying goodbye to Lori or anyone. The truth sat next to him across the California border and back to his parents’ house, and years later wherever he went. Well, at least Mr. Florentine no longer thought he was gay. But that was Chris’s first punch to the gut by love and romance. It could’ve been worse, but it set the tone for his lovelife. He wouldn’t experience a normal relationship in the next twenty years. The ones he did have were short-term. They went a few months before they were terminated. Neither of them ended in peace. The older he got, the less the relationships were about true love and more about stock options for companionship, like buying a dog because a shrink said it would help the loneliness. Chris never had the resources for that. A dog was expensive to care for. He thought. His good friend, who had gone through two divorces before thirty-five, had spent $7,000 on his last trip to a veterinarian, because his chihuahua had conjunctivitis. That would’ve devastated him worse than the bill from the IRS.
So a pet was out of the question. Romance was out of the question as well. So was everything else he had wished for. He became a writer to keep himself busy, or else he would end up in jail. He had to get an agent, which was a scary thought. He needed an agent for self-validation as a writer, and agents didn’t take unknown writers, just how women wouldn’t take single men. He was seeking redemption against Lori, and even friends and family members. What a proud day it would be to shut them all up for good—not the physical ones but the ones who doubted him in his head. But how impossible it was to push them out.