Category Archives: Stuff I Write

You and I

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“ ’88, huh?”

The security guard raised his eyebrow and glanced back up at Ross Whelan’s driver’s license to Ross himself – dressed in a black suit, white shirt, no tie. He stuck out like a sore thumb in the lobby of Harris Residential Hall. Judging by his age – 29 years young – he also knew Ross had no place on the University of Southern California’s campus.

Ross was unamused by the guard’s façade. He was just doing his job, but he didn’t have to be a dick about it. Ross was already uneasy about showing up to a college dorm in a suit that was a little frayed at the end of the sleeve. On the drive down the 110 from Highland Park, he wondered if he really was this desperate for money: pimping himself out on Tinder to anyone who would help him pay his rent. Anyone – men, women;

How the fuck did things get this bad?, he thought.

Ross had arrived in Los Angeles two years ago. He was hired to write on a TV show that got cancelled after 10 episodes. It was a network sitcom – one of those shows that only aging baby boomers watch – starring some asshole who was a big deal in the 1990s and “an exciting new voice in comedy” whose Snapchat fame preceded his joke writing ability. The whole thing was a disaster. But man, he recalled while exiting at Exposition Blvd, was that money nice.

He bounced from show-to-show for a year, gradually becoming more and more cynical with the Hollywood meat grinder: fading screenwriters turned showrunners who didn’t care about Trending Topics or diversity in Hollywood – they had fucking alimony to pay; executives who thought Top Gun reboots or giving an Instagram celebrity a talk show was a good idea; everyone talking about the West Coast as “the Best Coast” but they had never seen New York City, London, Paris, or even The Bay Area since George W. Bush was President.

Ross was over all of it, but didn’t want to move back to New York, or get a “real” job, so he took less work, which was how he ran out of money, so here he was: getting eyeballed by a 26 year old dorm security guard while college kids – kids was the operative word – streamed in and out of the building’s lobby. Some of them dressed in sweatpants and unshowered; many of them done-up, ready to be seen and heard in front of a Step & Repeat at a moment’s notice.

“Yup. Honor is expecting me.” Ross replied.

The guard took a deep, contemplative breath, “You know: she doesn’t get a lot of visitors.”

“Really?” Ross, trying to be congenial, kept his irritation in check.

“But when I called up: she said she was expecting you. So I guess you’re in the right place.”

The guard handed Ross back his driver’s license, and asked him to sign-in on the visitor log. As Ross scrawled the cheap Bic pen across a worn page that was curling at the edges, another crew of students herded past them: the girls dressed in Versace, the guys dressed Ben Sherman. USC was stacked with rich and powerful kids: some of them with basic decency, some of them for whom life was a playground. Ross put the pen back down.

“Were we ever like that?” he asked the guard.

“I don’t know, man – I went to Long Beach. It’s a different world down there.”

 

Ross rode the elevator alone up to Honor’s floor. He took out his iPhone and checked his hair and face in the camera: his green eyes looked a bit tired; the grey at his temples seemed to spread a little further across the expanse of his brown hair; his face was clean-shaven and his skin had a dull glow. He was still a young man, but he didn’t feel young. Of course: he hadn’t really felt young since he had been in college. Ross closed his phone and enjoyed a few more seconds of quiet and solitude, before this whole desperate charade had to start.

The elevator dinged open, and Ross stepped out as another set of party girls pushed past him onto the elevator:

“Ugh. This dorm is so gross.” One of them said, “I can’t wait to move to The Lorenzo next year. That shit’s gonna be tight.”

The Lorenzo was a giant McMansion condo complex, just two blocks off-campus, that lured college kids into expensive luxury leases but without supervision from those annoying R.A.s.

“You know who also lives there?” the second girl said, “Derek.”

“I know. I’ll be fucking the shit out of him every day.”

The doors closed and Ross stood alone on the dorm’s fourth floor – cinder blocks, industrial carpeting, corkboards with campus announcements, fluorescent lighting. Looks fine to me. Ross thought.

He began walking down the hallway to room 434. The click of his heels were muted by the carpet. As he passed under each light, the spaces in his thinning hairline became exposed. Ross could feel his whole body getting jumpy, his heart rate quickening: he was a grown man at a college campus, who was about to have sex with a college girl for money. Maxim celebrated these kinds of antics, but Ross was trying to not turn around and run back to his car.

You’re broke. You need the money. You’re broke. You need the money. You’re broke. You need the money.

He reached 434: a thick wooden door with a deadbolt and several coats of Dirt Brown paint slapped on it – drippings from previous coats were fossilized beneath the yellow plastic number plate.

Ross closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He opened them again, and extended his fist to knock with the joints of his knuckles.

“Just a minute.”, said a muffled, female voice from behind the door.

Ross sat back on his heels, and could feel himself becoming lightheaded. He shook his shoulders to loosen up.

The lock turned.

The knob turned.

The door opened.

Opposite of the threshold stood Honor – her brown bangs covering her forehead, a blousey tanktop hung from her shoulders with a lacey bralette showing beneath it; she wore black jeans ripped at the knees, and ankle socks. She was 20 years old, but looked 17. She had a pear shape body. Atop her neck was a round face with big eyes – highlighted with cat eye mascara – and red lipstick on a flat, animated mouth. Her skin was pale.

“Wow. You dressed up.”, she said.

“I thought it would be a good idea.” Ross replied.

Honor sighed and showed a disappointed smirk, “I guess. Here – come in.”

Honor stepped aside and let Ross cross the threshold. She closed the door behind him.

Honor’s dorm room was dark. Christmas lights lined the ceiling and expensive lavender-scented candles burned in the room. On an opened laptop, Bon Iver’s “29 #Stafford APTS” played through a Bluetooth speaker. Her desk had a stack of books: Econ 203 Principles of Microeconomics, Pearson Custom Business Resources: Econ 205 Principles of Macroeconomics, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them by Newt Scamander and J.K. Rowling on the very top.

“Harry Potter. Very nice.” Ross said.

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” Honor replied.

Ross craned his neck to see the other titles, “Economics, huh?”

“I’m an accounting major.”

“Cool.”

“Do you… do anything else?”

Ross hesitated with the truth, “Um…. No. Just this.”

“So, this is how you make a living?”

“Yeah.”

“…so you’ve been with a lot of people?”

“No! You’re actually my first.” Ross didn’t want to spook her out of giving him business.

“Oh. So you just started doing this.”

“Yeah.” They could both feel the awkward turn in the conversation. Ross looked over her shoulder at the well-made bed opposite of them. The desk next to it had a few indications that someone else lived in the room. “Is your roommate out of town for the weekend?”

“Yeah. But she’s barely ever here. She’s from the Palisades, so she goes home a lot.”

“Cool.”

“How should we do this? Do I pay you upfront?”

It suddenly occurred to Ross that he had considered none of this. “Yes!” he chirped, “I can take cash or check.”

“I don’t have either of those. What do you think? I just keep $500 lying around in my dorm for when I feel like getting a prostitute?”

Ross felt a pang in his stomach – it was the first time he’d heard someone call him “prostitute” and he knew it to be true. “Okay. Uh… do you have Venmo?”

In a matter of moments, the transaction was done: all via app; first the meeting, then the payment. Ross verified receipt and then they stood quietly in Honor’s room.

“So, what do you want to do?” Ross asked.

“I like it rough.” She replied.

“Okay.”

“I like to be choked and spanked. But, like: I want to cum, too.”

“Sure. Whatever you want. … Do you usually not cum?”

“No. Most of the guys I’ve been with go too fast, or they hit me when I don’t tell them, too.”

“What happens after that?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Now that you have your money, I’d like to do this, please.”

“Sure. Okay.” Ross was uncertain what to do next. “Should we just start?”

“Yes.” Honor replied, her voice becoming tense. “Just… just start, and I’ll tell you what I like and don’t like. Just keep asking me and listen to me. Okay?”

Ross nodded his head. He stepped close to her, only a few inches between them. They looked each other in the eye, and he kissed her. Their tongues swirled and flicked nervously in each other’s mouths. She pressed her body against him, and felt her breasts flatten into his chest. Her right hand splayed across his shoulder blade, her left hand grabbed his crotch. Ross’s hands hung at his side, lifeless and uncertain.

“Pull my hair.” Honor told her.

Ross reached around and placed his fingers across the back of her skull, letting her hair curl around his fingers, and pulling her back so that the roots gently tugged against her skin.

“Harder.” She said.

Ross gave it another tug.

“Harder.” She said.

Ross felt no passion or interest. It was like being instructed on how to change oil in a car. He tugged even hard, and Honor yelled.

“OW! Not that hard!” She pushed him away and he almost fell on top of her roommate’s desk.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Are you okay?”

Honor rubbed the back of her head, looking at Ross as if English were his third language, “Yeah. Um… ow, fuck.” Honor held her head for a few moments: this was not going great.

“Let’s try again,” she said after the pain wore off, “But I want to do a different tactic.”

“Okay.”

She approached him again – very close – and said, “Kiss me down my neck.” She pulled her brown hair back and presented her pearl white jugular to him like a girl wanting to take the next step with her vampire fuck buddy. Ross leaned in and softly kissed her neck, working his way down to her chest.

This works. He thought. I think this works.

Honor’s breathing got heavier, “Touch my breast.”

Ross obliged. He continued to kiss her on her chest and cleavage, moving his hands off her breast onto her ass. Honor responded by rising up on her tiptoes. Her hand began to run through his hair as she pushed his face into he breasts.

Okay. He thought. This is better. She likes this. Just be careful.

“Slap my ass.” She said. Ross did so. She moaned and told him to do it again. Ross obeyed.

“What do you want next?” he asked. He brought his head back up to her and started kissing her again.

“I want…” she said, in between Frenching, “I want…” She stopped kissing him and pushed away from him again. “I can’t do this.”

Ross stared at her: confused, but very relieved.

 

Daikokuya’s dinner rush was dying down after Honor and Ross ordered their food. Their waiter returned with Cokes for each of them as they sat together in semi-silence – trying to figure what exactly was supposed to happen with the rest of their night.

Honor had paid Ross his money, but she couldn’t have sex with him. So she decided on the next best thing: take him out for ramen and make use of the companionship for the night.

“I’ve always wanted to try this place. It’s been around forever in Little Tokyo. My friends never want to come here. We always end up going to Tsujita in Santa Monica. And: it’s fine, but – like – why do we always have to go to the Westside for everything?”

Ross nodded his head, and looked beyond their booth out through the storefront window onto East 1st Street. Downtown Los Angeles was one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Like New York, there were tons of bars, restaurants, or nightlife within walking distance. And yet: barely a soul seemed to be out on the street. It was 10:00 p.m. In New York, that would’ve been the start of the night, but it was the beginning of the end in L.A. It got him thinking about all those USC party kids back at the dorm. They looked like they were ready to see the sun come up; but very few of them probably had or ever would.

Los Angeles is a city filled with people trying to be something they’re not; which gives it a veneer that shielded plenty of ruthless ambition and existential loneliness. Ross wondered if people in this town would ever learn how to have a good time by just being themselves. He returned his attention to Honor:

“So: how did you become a hooker?”

Ross grimaced, “I’m not a hooker.”

“I paid you for sex and you accepted it. So what does that make you?” Honor sucked an edamame bean from its pod as she spoke. Ross was a bit put off – he hated with people talked with their mouths full.

“What are you doing agreeing to pay for sex? You’re attractive.”

“Thank you. But I asked you first.”

Ross took a sip of his soda, “I’m broke. So this was the best thing I could think of.”

“Why are you broke?”

“Because I didn’t save my money when I should’ve.”

“That’s why I study accounting. Because I don’t want to go broke. I want to know how money works and never worry about that stuff.” She pulled another pod from the bowl between them. Ross stared at her with some contempt, but then remembered that she had paid for his company – so he had to sit there and listen to her. “What did you do before you went broke?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Like: books?”

“TV. I wrote for a couple of TV shows, but I’m kind of sick of it.”

“You grew up in The Valley, didn’t you?”

“Why do you ask?” Ross sat back in the booth and couldn’t wait to hear where this was going.

“You look like a guy from The Valley. You look older than your age, and a little more uptight.”

“I’m from New York City. I grew up in Riverdale, and lived in Manhattan.”

“I’ve never been.” Honor pushed the bowl towards the wall of their booth, exercising self-control.

“I hear that a lot.” The waiter arrived with two steaming bowls of pork ramen. The broth was a vibrating yellow, housing noodles, tender meat, and eggs in its watery embrace. Honor’s face lit up as she excitedly unwrapped her chopsticks and dug in. Ross contemplated his ramen for a moment: it wasn’t his favorite dish. But this “date” wasn’t exactly what he wanted, either. She was making dumb small talk and he was wondering when this whole night would just be over. And then he could take his money – with no remorse – and go home to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling until the sun came up. By the time he had unwrapped his chopsticks, she had finished a third of his food.

Honor laid her chopsticks in her bowl with her spoon to the side. She watched Ross as he struggled to keep his meat between his sticks.

“Do you really think I’m attractive?”

Ross slurped up a noodle, “You think otherwise?”

“Look at me: look at my hips, look at my thighs, look at my ass. All my friends are size 1s and I’m a bloated whale.”

“That’s why I’m here then, right?”
Honor watched him eat some more, “I don’t get guys. They don’t want to date me. They’ll fuck me. But they want to date other girls.”

Ross pretended to care, “Like your friends. This must really bother you.”

“It does! I like sex. But I also want a boyfriend.”

Ross finally got a couple bites of pork, “Why does it bother you so much? You got a whole life ahead of you. With your degree, you’ll probably be fine for a job. I wouldn’t worry about a boyfriend, if I were you.” He picked up his spoon and started slurping broth.

Honor leaned forward, “Can I tell you a secret?” Ross nodded his head. “I hate all of my friends. I hate USC. I hate L.A. I feel like my whole life has been me doing things because that’s what I’m supposed to do. And I do them. And that’s fine with everyone, because we all have these… identities we were supposed to be playing. But I feel like: it’s all bullshit. Like, I’m not happy being who everyone else wants me to be. And I’ve talked to my friends about this – like, one-on-one. And we all feel the same, but no one wants to do anything about it. They’re all like, ‘We’re a family. And families have to have one of everything.’”

Ross put down his chopsticks and spoon, and listened to her.

“But I don’t want to be the fun fat girl who you fuck, but you don’t date. Who would want to be that? I want to be: me. And I want to be with people who like me because I’m me. So that’s why I’m not out tonight. And that’s why, I guess, you’re here. And I guess that’s why we’re eating ramen instead of having sex right now. Because I wanted to be myself tonight. And out of all the people I know in L.A. – you’re the only one I can be that with.”

Honor picked up her chopsticks and continued to eat her ramen. Ross watched her eat, and then tried again with the noodles.

 

Ross stirred awake as daylight broke through the window of Honor’s dorm room. He couldn’t see a clock anywhere, but he’d guess it was 7:00 a.m. by where the sun sat. He had not slept well: twin beds weren’t meant for two people. Honor’s head rested on his shoulder, while her arm and leg clung to him as if he were a body pillow. She was still in her tank top and bralette from the night before, he wore his white shirt – both of them had slept with no pants. Ross moved quietly out of bed while Honor stirred and smacked her lips. He reached for his pants and jacket, left on the roommate’s bed. He was tired – very tired – and pulled out his phone to Google the nearest Starbucks before he would start the drive home.

“Thank you for staying last night.”

Ross turned around to find Honor still under the sheets – eyes closed, pushing words out of her mouth as if they were her last. She did not get up or open her eyes.

“I’ll Venmo you an extra $200.”

“You don’t have to do that.” Ross replied.

“I want to.” She wheezed. “You were really nice about it, so you should get paid.”

Ross didn’t want to take her money. But he knew he had to – he needed anything.

“Thanks.”

“Mm-hm.”

Ross put his shoes on and tied them. He was ready to leave.

“We should do this again.” Honor said.

“Yeah, well. You have my number. I’m around.”

“You’re a nice guy, Ross. I know you’re not happy. But I think you’re nice, and good. You’re not a creep like a lot of guys I know.”

“Thanks.”

There was a moment of hesitation. The night was over, the transaction had been made – Ross had every reason to leave. But something felt off. Maybe it was sense of pity for Honor. Maybe it was because she said one the nicest things he had heard in the last two years. He leaned over the bed and kissed her on the head. She picked herself up, took his collar, and kissed him on the lips. It wasn’t awkward or nervous as last night. She let go of his collar and went back to sleep.

“I’ll send you $225.”

She turned her back to him – as if she had gotten everything she needed – and fell back asleep. Ross turned and left her dorm.

Outside of the dorm, the 26 year old security guard smoked a cigarette and watched Ross as he left the building. They made eye contact and Ross stopped walking.

“Have fun last night?” The security guard smiled. His teeth and lips were full of judgment. He was a bad comedian hinting at a dumb joke rather than just saying what was on his mind. Either way, Ross got it: he thought Ross was some gross older guy who couldn’t do any better, and he would always remember this encounter to remind himself, “I’m better than that sad bastard who showed up in a suit to fuck a college kid.” Ross smirked, flipped him off, and walked back to his car.

As his Prius sped up the 2 going north, Ross thought about their conversation over ramen last night – Honor’s clumsy, youthful diatribe that struck at the same chord he heard. The question, “What am I even doing here?” Ross’s life in Los Angeles was not going as he’d hoped. And yet: he refused to change anything. As a result, life felt darker, more restrictive, more pointless. He wondered if it would be this way forever. Would his existence always feel so lonely and frustrated? The irony, of course, was that out of pure desperation: he had found someone who felt much of the same. He seriously doubted that his and Honor’s relationship would be anything more than professional. In fact: it would be best if it stayed professional. She was too young and he didn’t the hassle.

Still, he thought, it was nice to meet someone I had something in common with.

The sun got brighter, opening its eye on the San Gabriel Mountains.

Russ could tell: it was going to be a really beautiful day.

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Just For One Day

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Inspired by David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Stranger Things

“I have to go back.”

Mel sat on the edge of the bed, palming her coffee cup. She wore Stu’s shirt from last night. After uttering the words she dreaded, her head bent down and she took a deep breath from the collar. His aqua fir cologne still held the cold air prisoner. The chill slipped her back: to last night, to Times Square, the confetti dancing, the joy, the smiles; him holding her in his arms, his hand splayed on the small of her back. Her body went limp. For the first time, in many months: she felt safe from everything.

“Back…?”

Stu picked himself up out of the bed and rubbed his eyes. He could smell the coffee as it bubbled and popped on the hot plate a foot away. The morning light peaked around the edges of Mel’s head, giving her a crown. Her long, brown, wavy hair trickled down her back, adding balance to the white of his shirt.

She didn’t turn around when she said the dreaded words. She just stared out the window. That must’ve made it easier.

Mel sipped her coffee – light and sweet – “Yeah. It’s time.”

The way she said, “time”, echoed in Stu’s brain. Its warm finger pressed itself into his frontal lobe and pushed through electrodes and synapses, and it pointed – all the way – to Reality: at the center, where it chew and blew bubble gum.

“We’re happy here.” Stu got out of bed to pour himself some coffee.

“I’m not, Stu.”

“You could give it a try.” Stu poured a black coffee into the .95¢ Conway mug.

He walked to the edge of the bed – naked – and sat opposite of her. Mel sensed a stiff defense in his demeanor. He didn’t look at her, preferring instead to peer out one of the two windows that faced West 44th Street.

The wind kicked-up snowflakes outside; Mel watched two pigeons dance and coo on the sill as they warmed each other. Coffee steam glowed from their cups. The January cold invited itself in to their rented room.

“Happy New Year,” Stu said, “Here’s to 1960.” He raised his cup to the window.

Mel looked at him, “What’s so scary about 2016?”

Stu paused before his first sip, “Nothing.” He drank.

“Then why not go back?”

“We agreed to move forward together. Here.”

“I can’t. Not with you. I have to go back to my time.”

Stu chuckled. He took another sip of coffee, and began to look around for his underwear. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me, again.”

He got up and hunted for his briefs.

Mel watched him stalk and sulk. She felt a lump in her throat tighten – the physical manifestation of worry. He knew how to control the wormhole, not her. Stu could be small sometimes, but not vindictive. He was always that way in college. He would get so wrapped up in professors playing favorites – anointing certain students and ignoring him. Not being special back then bothered him; she never heard the end of it. But she never knew him to want revenge. At least, she hoped: want revenge on her.

“This has nothing to do with our past.”

Stu found his underwear, “Doesn’t it though?”

“You have a wife and daughter. What are you thinking?”

“That we should be together!” Stu looked up as he slipped his legs through each hole, “That’s the way it should’ve been for the last 15 years! And now: look at what I can do!”

Stu waved his fingers in a circle, and the room seemed to twist. Lines on the floor warped. Air turned empty. Time became a blanket an angry mother pulled off her toddler’s head. It could bend and bleed, all in the palm of his hands.

Stu’s eyes glowed with something: power, maybe malice – he seemed possessed. Mel worried that he was gone, and they would be stuck in 1960 forever. The thought of permanent trespassing chilled her.

“You’re afraid.” she said.

“No. I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. You need to accept things as they are, Stu. I have to, too. I buried my husband a week ago.”

“Exactly! You’re so worried about – what? – formality? We’re in love! We’ve always been in love, Mel. Now I have this power – we don’t even have to worry about a divorce, or what people will think of us! We can go anywhere, and be us! Finally!”

Stu sat down on the bed next to her, and kissed her. She touched his face; they kissed, as though nothing could fall. He tried to push her down onto the mattress, but she pushed back. She pulled her lips from his, and looked at him: his thirtysomething face, still youthful but hurt. He was the talky, funny boy she met in acting class freshmen year. But as she looked into his eyes, she saw the loss. To be honest, she recognized it. In Stu’s eyes were the feelings she carried in her guts: the uncertainty of it all.

They broke-up.

They drifted.

They met other people, life moved on.

It was all fine and happy.

But first love… there is something about it.

“We fit here.” Stu said. “And if not: we can go somewhere else. The 80s, the 70s – we can go to the 20s!” The Great Gatsby was Mel’s favorite book.

“Stu…” Mel appealed. “I’m not telling you what to do with your life. But I have to go home. We had our time. I’d rather it stay that way.”

Stu felt his heart drop. His grip on her eased, and he slowly recoiled – his tiny dad gut pooching over his waistband. He fixed his gaze back out the window, and got up to see how the city wore its new year.

Only a few blocks away – through flecks of snow – he could see the rays of flashing neon, whale song car horns, people below crunching powder under their boots. 1960 was a good year to be an actor, he always thought. There was all the theater downtown, not mention the cafes on MacDougal. Bob Dylan wasn’t even there yet. He could make a life in this year. But he’d hoped Mel would feel the same.

“You remember when we talked about being born in the wrong year?”

Mel nodded her head.

Stu kept staring out of the window, thinking about Meryl and Mary. Meryl was turning four in 2016. She liked making snowmen with her daddy. It made winter special – even though Christmas always came and went too fast. Her laugh: it was filled with surprise, the kind you have when the world is so discoverable. Stu would chase her – lumbering as the abominable snowman, bearing teeth, howling at the clouds – before scooping her up. She would squeal as her feet danced amongst the snowflakes, her daddy helping her touch the sky. Mary watched from the porch, so pleased he was taking to fatherhood.

Life is wonderful.” He always told himself, “Life is wonderful. Try to accept that.”

“Stu…?” Mel got up from the bed. “I want to go home. Please take me home.”

Stu didn’t turn around.

He stayed quiet.

He thought.

And thought.

And thought.

“I love you.” he said, still not turning to face her. “I should’ve said that more.”

“I love you, too.” she replied, “You didn’t have to.”

“It was all easier, when we were younger.”

“It was.”

The silence sat for a little longer. Stu finally took a deep breath, and turned around.

“Okay,” he said, “get dressed. I’ll take you home.”

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“The Last American Genius”

Travis Chester sat at his plastic play table, alternating between his onward stare directions: exposed brick wall, blank news paper, exposed brick wall, blank news paper, etc. etc. He fingered his favorites red crayon, his head rested on his left palm. He was waiting for his first idea. But it wasn’t coming.

“Ugh! Dammit.”

Travis took a sip from his Grover monster apple juice box. He swished the natural sugars in his cheek, gulped them down. Another thirty seconds of nothing, which led him to crumble the box and throw across the room in a rage,

“Bukowski was so wrong! Drinking does nothing to make great art. Fuck him, and Dylan Thomas!”

The afternoon was turning into a great disappointment for Travis. Here he was: five years old, and he had failed to write the Great American Novel. His dreams as a fetus were quickly slipping away, and he felt powerless against the will of nature. “There is nothing more frustrating,” he would later tell his therapist – Mr. Bill, the stuffed giraffe – “than the disconnect between genius and art.” Yes, other children of his age worried about naps, but Travis was, “So fucking above it.”

Travis was your typical tortured kindergarten artist. He’d known he was genius when Mrs. Jane, his teacher, told him that his finger painting of a dog was “so pretty”. But it was of course after discovering the works of Berenstein and Goose that he knew he wanted to be a writer. But, like all good talent, he struggled. When he couldn’t write, he’d lie in his rocket bed for hours – clutching Killer, his plush T. Rex, and listening to the Raffi track, “When’s It’s Raining, I’m Sad” on his iPod. His mother would get concerned for obvious reasons, but then reminded herself that she fell in love with Travis’s father because of his “soft soul”. Hard for her to believe that 15 years ago, she saw James’s performance as a dancing tree ghost in The Wooster Group’s production of My Fair Lady, and their lives had never been the same. Travis had inherited James’s own introvert and sensitive tendencies. This revelation drove to cancel that order of Gummy Prozac she’d put in for her son, all while wistfully thinking, “He’s going to enchant some wonderful young girl one day!” For his birthday, she’d already bought him a Jackson Pollock color-by-the-numbers coloring book. Anything to encourage Travis’s creativity!

But none of that was going to help Travis now. His afternoon nap was upon him; and then, it would be snack time. And then, mommy came home from yoga, and daddy would eventually be home from his job selling ad space for New York Magazine; “If I don’t write something in the next 10 minutes, this whole afternoon is fucked.”

Travis took a deep breath. Told himself to stop freaking out. Just write. He pressed his crayon to the paper. “No judgments.” he thought. Out it flowed:
“Cat dog cookie house Flower sun 123456 fish wheel kitty meow meow tiger lion yellow”

“Oh my God,” Travis thought in a moment of clarity, “I’m brilliant.”

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The Time I Went To Sabbath, and Realized I Wasn’t Jewish

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This is a true story about me, and my regular bouts of acquaintance with the Jewish faith.

I should have known – by the look on the face of the custodian – that I was in over my head. In front of me stood a young Caribbean man, maybe 29 at the oldest, and he could tell that I was either of lapsed faith, or no faith at all. Maybe – just maybe – I was a spy for the Catholics, the Pentecostals, or even worse: Temple Beth Shlomo of Brooklyn Heights. Those bastards had beaten Congregation Beth Elohim of Park Slope in the playoffs of The Inter-Jew Softball League three years straight. It was no secret that the team’s pitching coach served as cantor at the third Sabbath service of every month. Maybe somewhere in the prayers, written in cryptic Hebrew, would be the coach’s conditioning program.

That, of course, wasn’t the case either. What this very savvy custodian was dealing with was a 26 year-old writer who, despite coming from a Jewish family, had never attended a single Sabbath service in his life. My question to this astute gentleman was simple: “Isn’t the main temple supposed to be open for Sabbath service?”

“Yeah. But which faith are you? There’s the service at the main temple. Or, there’s the Reform service here in the annex synagogue.” he replied.

“Uhhhh….”

At that moment, a smile crept over the custodian’s face. Sure, in my khakis and buttoned-up oxford shirt (I left the top and collar button open, so as to show off a little chest fro), I looked like someone right out of Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University. But this guy saw right through my disguise. In a single moment of cultural ignorance, this mild-mannered custodian exposed the disconnect I have always felt from my Jewish heritage.

“Yeah. I think here is where you want to be.” as he indicated the annex synagogue in front of us.

A few moments later, I sat in a pew, waiting for the service to start. I was only there, because of a writing class. The assignment, “Do something out of my daily routine”. My recent Fridays had been spent working on a new draft of something or other, or trying to find a cheap place to get drunk. Was an hour and a half of religion going to kill me? Especially, a religion that technically doesn’t recognize me as one of their own, despite a recent, minor yearning of mine for them to reconsider? My father was Jewish, my mother Episcopalian-Quaker. I am the seed of their crossbred, heathen affection. In my upbringing, religion was the last thing that ever seemed to matter – be it Christian or Jewish. Sure, it irritated my grandparents that their oldest grandson was “different” from his (at least) 10 other mitzvah’d cousins. Especially since he is the one to carry the Fried name into the 21st Century. But they made their peace with it. Actually, on his deathbed, my grandfather revealed three things to me: 1) Our family was really from Minsk, 2) As the oldest, he shouldered the burden of being the shining example to his six siblings, and 3) Towards the end, he tried very hard to start a non-profit in my name: “The Matthew Fried Foundation For Lost Jewish Boys And Repressed Homosexuals”. The third one was a surprise to my then-girlfriend, who also happened to be in the room. Never the less, the man did love me; and in the four years since his death, I began to want to know more about the faith. Not to eventually convert. It would be about family, about feeling a connection to a past that, more or less, explains why I was here on this planet.

Parents – these are the things your kids will wonder about in their twenties if you let them read Kerouac in grade school.

The service began at 7:00 p.m. By 7:10, I was already lost. You see, I don’t speak a word of Hebrew. And even though every prayer has an English translation, it’s really more of a decorative thing – like an imitation Gucci bag on a tourist. Anyway, I mumbled along through all of the service, throwing in a “ch” and a “feh” to sound authentic. I couldn’t let anyone know that I didn’t know what I was doing, especially not Josh – the well-studied Asian-American lawyer who sat behind me. He was my own age, and in the process of converting to Conservative Judaism. He was a law student at Yale, working for the summer at a corporate law firm. His big summer plans in New York City? Hit up as many different shuls in the five boroughs as possible. In case anyone is keeping score, the custodian and the convert were officially more Jewish than me.

Of course, things got a bit more awkward when I found myself nodding off by the midpoint in the service. Like clockwork, “The Guilt” set in. It’s like I could hear my grandfather screaming at me, “This is why we needed that non-profit!” But then, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t my fault. Outside of being sent to chapel services for three years in private school, I never went to a regular religious service. In a weird way, I sort of felt like Obama after being handed the economy on Day 1 – “Have fun, Mr. Messiah!” And also, wherever that “connection” I am looking for is, I now certainly know it wasn’t in a sub-basement in Brooklyn. I don’t know what my feelings are about God, The Afterlife, or The Phillies repeating as World Champions. As I sat there, listening to the rabbi go on about thanking The Invisible Dad getting for us through another week, I simply thought: “This really isn’t working for me.” As I said, at my core, religion was never a big deal. Perhaps that does mean, upon expiration, my 10 Jewish cousins will join the rest of The Frieds in Heaven while I’m re-incarnated as a squirrel in Bombay. That thought actually doesn’t bother me. What I did realize was: a religion doesn’t change who I am, or who my family is. The famous “How Jewish Are You?” debate will rage on until the end of Time. I can at least know I got a little piece of pie: an inexplicable amount of body hair, a shiksa fetish, and a fondness for early ‘80s hip-hop.

The service concluded at 8:30, and I was more than happy to leave. My first goal: find a slice of pizza, topped with the most un-kosher pepperoni in all of Brooklyn. As I made my way down the pew, Josh extended out his hand to me. His face was beaming with excitement. This was a man who clearly wanted to be of The Chosen People, and couldn’t wait for it to be official. We shook hands and wished each other, “Shabbat Shalom.”

As I quickly paced away from the Congregation, I thought about my 10 Jewish cousins. I thought about how – mitzvah or not – they were all given a choice of how to observe their faith as adults. It hit me that I always had the same choice. By now, all 11 of us had made our decisions, and we were happy. So, not to end this story on any kind of an inappropriate note, but I would like to announce the founding of my new non-profit: The Matthew Fried Foundation For Lost Jewish Boys and Unemployed Post-Grads. A recommended donation starts at $10. All proceeds go towards paying my rent next month.

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“Jonathan Is A Punk Rocker”

Jonathan whisked down 5th Avenue on his skateboard. He was going home – to 5th and 5th (Street and Avenue) – in Brooklyn. Though he wasn’t exactly elated. At home, nothing but worked stared at him in the face: a Language Arts essay on The Diary of Anne Frank, a model of Fort Sumter he had to finish building with Chas, and… his parents. His nice, but boring, parents. The minute he’d walk through the door it was going to be the same questions:

“Howwasschool?Youexcitedaboutgraduation?Highschoolisgoingtobegreat!
YourbrothergetshomefromPennnextweek;youwanttogowithhimanddadtoaMetsgame?”

To answer your questions, Jonathan thought – Fine. No. I guess. Yeah, sure. … Ugh.

As Jonathan stood on the corner of 5th and Union Street, waiting at the crosswalk light to change – one foot on the board, another on the pavement – he cranked Johnny Ramone’s power chords on his iPod. Right now, he just wanted to surf the street and listen to Rocket To Russia until his ears bled. He wasn’t looking forward to high school. Only two days ago, Chas – his best friend since first grade – told him that he’d gotten into Horace Mann. Next year, while Chas would be getting one of the best high school educations in the country, Jonathan would be stuck at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts. He already was something of a loner in middle school. Now, without Chas, he’d be a total loner in high school.

“Rock! Rock! Rock-a-way Beach! Rock! Rock! Rock-a-way Beach!” chanted Joey Ramone.

None of the other kids in his class listened to The Ramones. And if they claimed they did, it was only because they knew “Blitzkreig Bop” from the school basketball games. They weren’t REAL fans. Jonathan, on the other hand, owned two whole albums: Rocket To Russia and Road To Ruin. He didn’t own any others, because his dad told them these two records were The Ramones at their peak. His dad showed him a lot of music that his mom wouldn’t allow seen in the rest of the house. Up in the attic. In his dad’s design studio, they sat there: a forbidden record collection. Vinyl tomes of bands he’d never heard of – Iggy Pop and The Stooges, Superchunk, Violent Femmes, Husker Du. His dad promised him a mixtape as a graduation present. How the heck was he going to listen to a mixtape on an iPod? There was no question that his mom and dad loved each other. But she hated his music. Or at least, she’d roll her eyes and tried to ignore The Replacements’ “Satisfied” melting the walls of their townhouse as she’d make dinner. When Jonathan announced at dinner that he was going to learn “every Ramones song” for guitar that summer, his mother grew silent. As if nothing were said.

To tell the truth (something he said often), he took pride in knowing stuff the other 8th graders didn’t know. Sure – maybe they didn’t get him. And, because of that, he sometimes felt lonely. But he was thrilled when he could talk about something they could not. It meant there was a strength in him. He could talk to adults. Girls were at least faintly interested in acknowledging him. This was Jonathan at his best. He wanted to spend all summer playing guitar and listening to his dad’s record collection. He was a rebel, in his mind. One day, everybody was going to get him. And when that day came, he could french kiss as many girls as he wanted.

“Hey Jon!” she shouted.

Jonathan nearly fell off his board when Kaitlyn Burns waved at him across the street. Actually, he slipped and fell on his butt in front of Kaitlyn, and Anthony’s crew – Dragons Don’t Play. Anthony DaSilvano, Kaitlyn’s boyfriend, and his cronies pointed and laughed as Jonathan picked himself up. His headphones were scuffed up. Kaitlyn’s face changed to immediate concern, but Anthony grabbed her by the hand and dragged her down the block. D.D.P. followed.

“Dragons Don’t Play.” Jonathan thought “So gay.”

Kaitlyn Burns. Red hair. Green eyes. His Mary Jane Watson. Jonathan was madly in love with her. Always had been, and always would be. In Science class, they’d been lab partners. She would draw doodles and notes in the margins of his notebook pages. Little did Kaitlyn know that Jonathan would later carefully tear those pages out, put them in plastic Ziplocks, and hide them under his mattress. At night, he’d stay up studying the curves of her “S”s – “Did you watch Gossip Girl last night?” Once, she wore a low cut shirt to school. Jonathan went insane with the periodic glimpses he’d get of the lacey, white edge on her bra cup. There was even a daring moment when the two of them reached for a beaker at the same time, and his hand landed on top of hers. What was daring was that he kept his hand there for an extra 10 seconds. He could feel the adrenaline pumping up and down his spine for 10 minutes afterwards.

What did he really want? More than driving his mom insane? More than his best friend to not go away? Jonathan wanted to kiss Kaitlyn Burns.

Suddenly, the light bulb went off in his head: the graduation dance. Next week, after the 8th grade graduation ceremony, there was going to be a dance in the gym. That’s where he’d do it. At that moment, his heart jumped into his throat. He knew that such boldness doesn’t come without a price. That being an ass-kicking, courtesy of Anthony. To Jonathan, Anthony was a nedanderthal who listened to Lil Wayne. There was nothing unique about him. Except that he was with Kaitlyn. This was the result of Jonathan never getting up the nerve to ask her out. He frequently beat himself up over the missed opportunity: his chance came at the end of every. Single. Science. Class. Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. No question: Anthony could very easily kill Jonathan. If such a thing were to happen, no one could help him – not Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, or Marky Ramone. Definitely not Chas, who could barely run a fifth of a mile in gym class.

Was it worth it?

Jonathan pulled up to the stoop of his house. He sat there, on the bottom step, head in hands. This was the closest thing to an extistential crisis he’d ever had: kiss Kaitlyn, get buried six feet under by Anthony; or never kiss Kaitlyn, and spend his summer watching the world slowly crumble. At that very moment, he realized a sad truth: this would be the last time he and Chas would get to share something as the geek boys of the 8th grade. After next week, everything would be different. In times of indecision, Jonathan started doing something different – he let Joey and the boys do the thinking for him. He put on his headphones. Set his iPod to shuffle. Closed his eyes. And prayed to the rock gods to give him guidance. He hit play.

Three seconds of silence for the iPod to compute. Followed by…

“Yeah, yeah! She’s The Oooooonnnnnnnnnnnneeee!”

Jonathan opened his eyes and looked at the display screen – “She’s The One” by The Ramones, Road To Ruin.

“Yeah, yeah! She’s The Oooooonnnnnnnnnnnneeee! When I see her on the street  (‘What?’, thought Jonathan), y’know she makes my life complete. And y’know I told you so. She’s The One. She’s The One. She’s The One.”

Jonathan became short of breath. “Oh my God,” he said to himself “it’s a sign.” He sat frozen on his stoop step until the song’s end. He picked himself up, and walked up to his front door. He let himself. No one was home. Jonathan leaned his skateboard against the wall of the foyer. He dropped his backpack on the floor. He went into his kitchen and pulled a can of Coke from the fridge. He opened and gulped it down. He crushed the can and emitted a bleach that resonated through the house. He pulled his phone from his pocket and speed dialed Chas.

“Dude. I’m going to do something at the graduation dance. It’s going to be epic.”

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“I love you, Ava. Sleep with me.”

This is a super-short story I wrote a month ago. I’ve been keeping it in my notebook and wanted to post it. Enjoy.

He thumbed his glass and considered his options.

She had a boyfriend, who she mentioned occasionally, but was wasting no time flirting with him. She dropped a fifth free shot of Jameson in front of him. They toasted to some forgotten topic. Gulped down the fire water. She had to tend to everyone else at the bar. Alone on one end, he thumbed his glass.

Thomas was a guy with a lot of sins on his back. He was a forgotten son. A pill popper. Clinically depressed whenever it rained. Funny only when he was drunk. And, a bad driver. Emphasis on bad. But none of that mattered tonight. It rarely did when he showed up at Alpine, the only faux ski lodge in all of South Brooklyn – famous for its jukebox full of mixtapes, and catering to 29 year olds who hated being called “hipsters”. Beneath a stuffed moosehead and televisions that played Ski School on a continuous loop, Thomas Bennetton slouched down and stared at his empty shot glass. Tonight, he had only one option: go home with the bartender and have sex with her. Ava. She was practically screaming “Fuck me.” with all the free alcohol she was pouring in front of him.

This was trouble. He knew it, but he didn’t care.

Ava was something else. An art school girl with the mouth of a sailor. The face of a prom queen. This was the girl he read about all the time. The girl who acts like she’s tough, but needs someone. Someone who also needs someone.

He didn’t want to go home alone tonight. Sure, Thomas Bennetton was a lout, but even louts have feelings. And – alone in his apartment (the one his father bought him) – all he had were his feelings. And his feelings sometimes betrayed him. He didn’t want to be alone. He didn’t want to feel like a lout tonight. He wanted the trash-talking prom queen to kiss him. To make it all better.

He thumbed his glass and considered his options

He looked up at Ava on the other side, and waved her over. She raised her eyebrows, walked towards him with an arch in her back, her breasts stuck out. She grabbed the Jameson and two more shot glasses. She poured number six. They gulped. He smiled. She bit her lower lip. Her lip ring protruded out.

“God,” he thought “this’ll be awesome.”

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