My girlfriend Sarah wanted to surprise me for my thirty-sixth birthday. It was during her menopausal years. We were eight years apart. She was secretive. I believe she worked for the CIA. When we first had sex, she said: “You give me herpes, and I’ll break your kneecaps. I know people who can do it.”
After she’d said that, I had trouble finishing with her. Sarah used to lie there like a dead fish.
Despite that, I’d fallen madly in love with her and her sophistication.
“Can you promise me something?” she asked.
I would’ve promised her anything.
“Please don’t fall in love with me.”
It devastated me to hear that. “Why would I fall in love with you?” I said. “We’re only dating.”
“Good, because you’re not special to me.”
She was lying to protect her feelings. I was special to her. She was too afraid to admit it to herself. Her husband had cheated on her with a Russian mistress. How could I blame her for being defensive?
When I turned thirty-six, she drove me in her Volvo to the canyon. She’d planned the surprise for several months. She brought a blanket and a cooler: beer and tuna sandwiches. We reached an oak tree at the top to spread the blanket under. When we sat, she pulled her browline sunglasses from her head to her eyes. It was to protect her emotions. A serious discussion was coming.
“I think it’s over,” she said.
“Us,” she said. “It’s over. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
“That’s the surprise? You’re dumping me on my birthday?” She’d planned it all along. For three months. A twisted plot. “Can we at least be friends?” I asked. What else could I say?
“I guess,” she said. It was in a way that asked me what the purpose was. At least my kneecaps stayed intact.
“Can you get up?” she asked. She needed her blanket back so she could leave.
I stayed up there, dazed and alone.
A year passed. I was still dazed and alone, and I gained twenty pounds. My back was its hairiest. My hair fell off my head. My teeth were yellow from cigarettes and decay. I quit my job and cooped myself in my apartment. Maybe death would come. My shrink once said bipolar could cause someone to believe he would die soon. I wished that were the case.
Another year passed. I was still obsessed with her every day. Her ghost had destroyed me.
I tried dating apps. Older women were a hazard. Younger women didn’t want me. Except there were a few who wanted older men, but only for their money. I’d written Writer beneath my job description. One of them called me mysterious. Those women probably thought I was a published author. Maybe they imagined me in a beach house, at my work desk. They must’ve imagined me patting my retriever’s head. They must’ve imagined me watching the waves roll in outside my window. O muse, where art thou?
A woman named Elizabeth met me at happy hour. She arrived an hour late, wearing Sarah’s perfume. I was buzzed on vodka sodas already. The drinks were strong at The Rusty Whip.
Elizabeth was a hairdresser for Hollywood stars. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “My last client took forever.”
I slurred my words. I told her, “Be thankful you’re only thirty-one. When you turn thirty-eight, just end it all.”
She said she received a text. “Oh my God, I have another appointment. I like totally forgot.”
“Now?” I asked.
“So sorry,” she said. “We’ll try this later.”
She could’ve hugged me. But she climbed into her Volvo. It reminded me of Sarah.
I lit a spliff in front of the bar when she was gone. She was forgettable anyway compared to Sarah.
“I smell Mary-joo-wanna.”
A white man at the entrance came up to me. He looked fifty. “You mind if I…?
I let him take a drag.
“Thank you for your generosity. The name’s Harlan.”
Harlan was a scarecrow in a bolo tie. He ran his own watermelon business. Everything about him confused me.
“I’m looking for another hand,” he said. “Do you want in?”
“I need more drivers. There ain’t enough right now.”
It made me laugh as I was drunk and stoned. “Sorry, but I’m not interested.”
“You think the job is beneath you?” Harlan asked. “Is that it?”
He guilted me into the job. So a failed date had turned into a job opportunity. Serendipity had never felt so disappointing.
I thought about it at a stoplight. It was one a.m. on La Brea. The frame around a North Dakota license plate said: Freedom whispers. I was whacked out of my mind. But yes, it whispers. Does loneliness equal freedom? My friends had left me. Why? Whatever happened to those years? No inspiring video could solve my disconnect.
I froze in terror behind the wheel at what my life had become. I stared off to my right at lights above a grocery store. I was asleep with my eyes wide open. My parents lived a hundred miles away from where I sat. The only friends nearby were in The Stingray. They stayed there like the jukebox. And they were as useful as the jukebox, too. Friends at the bar are just friends at the bar.
By three a.m., I called my internet provider with a phantom issue. An outsourced person listened to me talk.
“The lights keep blinking,” I said.
“Sir, I asked you to reset it. What else can I do?”
I just needed someone to talk to. “Where’s the manager? This is ridiculous.”
There was no manager. Those bastards.
Harlan needed his watermelons shipped from Lancaster to Santa Maria. I met him at the shoulder of the 27 at six in the morning. He checked his watch. “You’re late.”
“Sorry, Harlan. You should’ve seen the line at Starbucks.”
He spat a massive chunk of saliva. “Starbucks? Might as well drink from Mildred’s asshole.”
“Who’s Mildred?” I asked.
“My cow. She has a digestive problem. Serious, though. Don’t be late again.”
It was a draining drive to Santa Maria. I stopped at a Taco Bell off the 46. They sold a Quesarito. The Quesarito was a burrito that fornicated with a quesadilla. The cheese was watery, and it oozed like something in fetish porn. I sat there, almost forty years old, responsible for watermelons. I dreadfully gazed out the window at the Paso Robles Highway. It was an existential crisis. Just telling it how it is. Was a hundred dollars worth the drive? At least Harlan covered the gas expense.
Those watermelons filled the back of Harlan’s 1989 pickup named Brenda. Brenda could barely chug up those hills. Those fruits held her down.
Harlan personified things, including watermelons. He called them his girls. Brenda was his higher power, his dead wife. Brenda’s vents were broken. Her window crank was missing. My only visitor was my thoughts. They ran feral in the countryside. Those rows of agriculture left me dissociated. Those thoughts added to the sinking feeling over Sarah. The steering wheel would shimmy on the road. It had one lane. Diesels thundered past me. One shook Brenda to loose gravel. I panicked with those watermelons.
I was detached in the Taco Bell, too. A bunch of men in cowboy hats began to steal from the truck. I had to run out there to stop them. “You come back here, you motherfuckers.”
They fled with their share of watermelons. And to think, I was once an intern at a Hollywood studio. That was in a past life. My current life was me yelling at watermelon bandits.
I drove the rest of the fruits to a plant. The place looked like a location shoot for a science fiction film in the 1950s. The ones where white men walked on Mars. It really was another world. A couple of ranchers came out to empty Brenda. Their cowboy hats matched. I lit a cigarette. I decided to remain there and dissociate some more until the cigarette burned away.
After sunset, I returned Brenda to Harlan’s lot in Lancaster. He checked for any damages as if more were possible. He handed me the one hundred dollars as promised. It was a greasy envelope of mostly one-dollar bills. A schmuck like me believed everything was there. It was. Harlan was reliable. I didn’t have to fill out a 1099 form either. But I refused to take another brutal drive like that.
He called me an hour later, furious:
“What happened to my girls? You stole them, didn’t you?”
“Stole what? I hate watermelons.”
“They must’ve fallen off the truck then.”
“Yes, they must’ve rolled down the highway.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy.”
“Boy? I’m thirty-eight.”
“I forgive you,” Harlan said, that stupid man. “You know why I forgive you? Because I like you.”
“Gee, those are kind words,” I said.
“I’ll let you keep this job. But you watch them girls next time. Make sure they’re in tight.”
There wouldn’t be a next time. “Sure thing.”
He left several messages on my voicemail. I hated to string people along. That’s what Sarah did to me. But I had a problem saying no. He called me on the third day. People would text me with simple questions and never call me. It beat the silly yakking. But Harlan was sentimental. He must’ve thought texting was too distant, which it is. I love my distance.
He had to hear me say it.
“No, I quit.”
“Why now?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Harlan. My heart just isn’t in it.”
“Your heart? But I gotta ship my girls by tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you do this?” I said. “Go to the Taco Bell off the 46. There’s a gang of them who will take them for you.”
My friend from high school sent me a friend request on Facebook. I’d lost touch with him. Jonathan still owed me five-hundred dollars over a Broncos game. But that’s neither here nor there. I forgave him even when I needed it. He and I talked through Facebook Messenger. He asked if I was going to the twenty-year reunion. There was no way in hell. What would I tell those douchebags? That I was unemployed? That the love of my life dumped me on my birthday?
I worried I would die in my studio apartment from old age. The eulogy would’ve gone:
This person has passed after nine unfulfilling decades. We guessed he was an aspiring writer because of the hundreds of notebooks in his studio apartment. But the handwriting was too messy. The graphologist couldn’t read it. Thus we pay respects to someone whose achievements we must overlook.
The first time I took Sarah to my apartment, she said she thought I was either a creep or a serial killer. A serial killer would’ve been more acceptable in modern society.
I met a bartender who had sex with serial killers. It began when Jonathan suggested a nonfiction book called How To Not Give a Fuck. He said I needed confidence: the dreadful C word. The title did provoke me despite the split infinitive. I hoped Marcus Aurelius was his pen name. He’d sold enough copies to make the New York Times bestseller list. His message was clear by the first chapter: to give nine-tenths of a fuck and one-tenth less of a fuck. In other words, fuck the small things. If only it had shown me how to not give a fuck at all. Give up. Abandon hope. Discard possessions. Set sail.
His writing style was bloggy. Marcus blogged, where his readership grew.
His paragraphs were only one sentence.
Some just fragments.
One of them was “Eat a dick.”
So much white on the pages made it look like an eye exam. He used a fratboy lexicon with words like asshat. But he did compare not-giving-a-fuck to a truck full of hamburgers. Not the most eloquent metaphor but somewhat original. Regardless, he pissed me off with his book. So I bought a ticket to his seminar.
Marcus stood onstage wearing a headset with sport sunglasses on his ballcap. He called himself a psychologist. With what degree? He said a William Arthur Ward quote. To paraphrase, the pessimist complains, the optimist expects change, and the realist adjusts the sails.
I raised my hand and asked him, “Does the realist know where he’s going?”
The crowd glared at me for calling Marcus into question. He ignored me and called on someone else.
His book looked at self-entitlement. But I didn’t want to give a fuck. How did those topics relate? He brought up his childhood and his meager life before his YouTube fame:
“I had to roll my sleeves up, pull up my bootstraps, take it one day at a time. No one ever helped me. My daddy told me, ‘Son, you got to earn yours.’ And I did, Goddamnit.”
The room began to clap cultishly. A piece of rib was stuck between my teeth.
He criticized teachers and professors—parents, too—for poisoning children and young adults. They fed the notion that everyone was special.
“It’s a failure,” Marcus said. “These parents praise their children when they haven’t done jack squat.”
You might think they would’ve done at least one inch of squat in eighteen years, but anyway…
“You’re not special,” he said to us. “So close your eyes and say it. ‘I’m not special.’”
They followed his command. But I didn’t. My laminate tried to pull that piece of rib from between my teeth.
“And what do college students think is waiting for them after school?” he asked. “Success will come no matter what?”
The people booed at that. “Death to college,” someone yelled behind me.
Marcus pissed on participation trophies, too. It was a fashionable topic at the time. “They’re bad for our kids,” he said. “Trophies go to those who earn them. I say burn those trophies right in front of Mom and Dad.”
But what about not giving a fuck?
Marcus had a phone app, too. So he called himself an inventor. It was an alarm that shouted platitudes:
Wake up. You’re lazy. You’re average like the rest of us. Get your ass to work. Stop believing you’re special.
Jesus Christ, my depression paralyzed me. I deserved a trophy just for getting out of bed and going there.
When I raised my hand again, he pointed at me.
“I beg to differ,” I said.
Five thousand pairs of eyes stared at me.
“You beg to differ?” Marcus said. He approached me. A stretch of feedback from his headset followed him. “He must think he’s special.”
The booing switched to laughter. The auditorium fell silent.
“Tell me, special one, why do you beg to differ?”
“I believe everyone is special.”
The boos echoed in there. I got claustrophobic and lost my breath, so I had to flee. The majority won.
I needed somewhere to hide my face. The O-ring was the closest place on a Sunday night. Morticia served the drinks. She wore all black: black hair, black skirt, black lipstick, and black fingernails. It was a bondage bar on most nights. I ordered a double vodka soda. She yelled at everyone to get the fuck out, except for me. For once, a woman made me feel special.
“Why’re you letting me stay here?” I asked.
She pointed at my laminate. Marcus had booked a private party. Just my luck. She thought I was part of the cult.
“I went there to protest,” I said.
She made me a free one.
Three drinks later, the unspecial ones sneered at me and drank away from me.
“Look who’s here.” That comment bounced around the room. I should’ve left, except the crowd intrigued me. Something appealed to me about being the antagonist. I stood alone and listened to someone whose hair was slicked back in a ponytail:
“I’m a venture capitalist. I’ve worked in Hong Kong, Stockholm, New York, Scotland, Seattle. You should see my wife, my dogs, my house, my car… But I’m not special.”
Someone else could speak. He said he was a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans. “I knew I’d make the pros since high school. I had to wait through Notre Dame, a full ride. I should make it to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Did I mention that I practice transcendental meditation? I do it when I run my routes. I’ll be a hall-of-famer twenty years from now. But I ain’t special.”
He’d used the letter I in every sentence.
I had to escape that part of the bar, so I asked Morticia for another drink.
A model in a sequin gown approached me with a glass of wine. She started talking to me. I thought it was a prank. Her accent sounded European. The crowd was too loud for me to hear her clearly.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m actress,” she said.
“Are you special?”
She squinted at me. “You’re that man with the stupid thoughts.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I tried to leave my stool. She squeezed my arm for me to sit. “I want to help. Do you recognize me? I’m up for the best actress.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
“It’s called The Colombian Inamorata. I play Colombian.”
“And you’re the inamorata?”
“Yes, but I’m Russian.”
So I was wrong.
“I move to town and meet the old producer-man in Venice. I was doing the rollerblading. He say to me, ‘You look part for feature.’”
“In those words?”
“It was, how you say, a dream come true? I never take the acting classes.”
“I’m sure you didn’t need to.”
She brushed her hand against my arm. “You so sweet.”
I looked at it as a chance to get over Sarah. Lucky me, that actor was oblivious to sarcasm, my native tongue. Women such as her could make it sound more pronounced.
“I have gift,” she said.
“Sounds like you made the right moves.”
“But I’m not special.”
“There’s a lot of that going around tonight.”
“Mr. Marcus is truly great writer, yeah?”
“You poor thing.” She pointed at the center of her chest. “You look deep here.” Her heart was under her left implant. Unless she meant her soul. Which rested between both implants. “Come closer.”
She must’ve wanted me to kiss her.
“You promise me you look deeper when you get home?”
“How will you know?” I asked. I was trying to get her to go with me.
“What you say?”
“I mean, how can I prove it to you?”
“I do not understand, you confusing American.”
She handed me her empty wine glass.
“What?” I said.
“You get me more of the wine.”
The nerve of her. “You get your own,” I said.
She waited stubbornly for my princely gesture. So I took her glass and walked away. Sarah was stuck in my mind.
Someone had taken my place at the catering table, an outcast like me. He wore a denim jacket with silver buttons on its pockets. We nodded at each other in humility. The table had one Zinfandel bottle left. Crumbs and sauce clung to the plates. The guests had ransacked the food and left a cold slice of pizza there. I held the bitch’s glass by its stem and tossed it in the garbage.
“Wouldn’t you love to see a bomb drop on this place?” he said.
I loved the cut of his jib. “Quit making sense. I’ll have to buy you a shot.”
“No,” he said. “I’m buying you a shot for standing up for yourself.”
“What can I say? I believe kids deserve participation trophies,” I said. “Half of them don’t even want to go to baseball practice. But their parents make them go. They deserve one just for showing up. That’s my take.”
His laminate said Ralph.
“Do you work, Ralph?”
“That’s the first question people ask me. ‘What do you do for a living?’ In other words, ‘What can you do for me?’”
“Ain’t that the truth,” I said. “I don’t even have a job.”
“I work at Domino’s and Spearmint Rhino,” Ralph said.
“At least they have their perks,” I said.
“I don’t know. Free pizza. Do you ever hook up with the dancers?”
“Oh no. I drive them to their clients. You should see what I see.”
“What brought you?”
“My wife,” he said. “She flew to the States. We got married and moved out here so she could start modeling. She didn’t love me anymore. So she threatened me with a divorce. You should’ve seen those legal papers, man. We stayed together just to avoid them. Now I’m drinking whiskey after AA meetings. Shit is grim. A producer made her an actress. He’s a real Weinstein. They fell in love. Now she’s with him. She acts like a totally different person now. So anyway, I read Aurelius’s book and came to see him because I was angry.”
“Angry?” I asked. “Ever been dumped on your birthday?”
“That’s cold,” he said.
“Is your wife up for an Oscar?”
“What?” he asked. “How do you know?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. “She’s over there.”
He bobbed and weaved from where he stood to try to look beyond the mob. “Fuck. I can’t let her see me here. She’s my sponsor.”
“So what?” I said.
“I guess you’re right. She got her wish. I got my money. She’s a citizen.”
“Let me ask you something, Ralph. Of all the people here, who’s the most interesting?”
“That’s easy. It’s Morticia.”
“Yeah. She fucks serial killers.”
That got me intrigued. “Let’s go talk to her,” I said.
When we got there, Ralph got slapped. His wife began to storm out.
We sat at the counter. We were two people against the mob.
“Welp, there goes my sponsor,” he said.
“You’re better off,” I said.
Marcus Aurelius stepped in. His followers went bananas. He started shaking hands with them. That gave us plenty of space at the counter.
The time came when we outstayed the mob. Morticia let me and Ralph stay until closing time.
“Hey, Morticia, this guy saved the day,” Ralph said. “I’m paying for his drinks.”
Hero for a day, a fool forever. He bragged about me.
“Marcus said, ‘A pessimist doesn’t know the outcome, an optimist thinks a change is coming, and the realist goes sailing.’ And my friend here asked him, ‘Well, where’s the optimist sailing?”
He was so drunk. He’d completely butchered the quote. But I’d drunk too much to correct him.
Morticia poured us more Deadwood.
“Hey, so which serial killer do you want the most?” I asked her.
She smiled for once as if she’d been waiting. “Jack the Ripper. I’ll let the Free Masonry slide. The only killer I wouldn’t date is Jeffrey Dahmer. He ate meat.”
“So the serial killer has to be vegetarian,” I said.
“Not that it breaks the deal, but it’s close.”
You want to talk about nitpicky.
After the doorman left, Morticia was on the other side of the bar. She had to rinse the glasses. My friend leaned into me. “Just play along.”
“Play along with what?” she said.
We froze up.
“You could hear us?” I asked.
“Like a bat,” she said. “I have sonar hearing. Bats are like the cutest. Don’t you think?”
“Agreed,” Ralph said.
“Of course,” I said, trying to play along. “Who doesn’t think a bat is cute?”
She held a wineglass to the light to polish off the blemishes. “After working here for all of these years, I can hear what people say.”
“What’re you doing after work?” Ralph asked.
“I know a place in Runyon Canyon. The coyote trail. We’ll hop the fence and take some mushrooms. Sound like a plan?”
My mind flashed back to that afternoon with Sarah. Ralph would have to go alone. “I’ll close out,” I said.
“You sure?” she asked.
But her body at the register tempted me more by the second. And she wasn’t Sarah. She wasn’t as threatening despite her leather and tattoos. And she wasn’t as threatening despite her penchant for serial killers. But no woman threatened me more than Sarah. It made them less attractive.
“Are you coming?” Ralph asked.
“I have to go to work.”
“You said you don’t have a job.”
“I meant I have to look for jobs.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “We’ll have fun without him. He’s just a rug.”
So I was. I could live with that.
When she was in the bathroom, Ralph and I were alone for the first time.
“So she dumped you on your birthday, huh?”
“Yep. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
“You will. The next one will break your heart in some other form or fashion. And you’ll forget all about her.”
I may as well have accepted what Ralph had to say.