Betsy Shebang - Column for 2/12
We got to Humboldt and after twenty minutes of circling the familiar neighborhood in tighter and tighter loops, we found the place. I wasn’t even sure which house it was at first. Several years ago I spent a New Year’s Eve here with Zoe and a few dozen people her roommate had invited without actually knowing them, which rendered the whole experience only a distant awkward memory. Zoe’s car was in one of the the driveways, a small chalkboard built into the steering wheel. She’s the coolest.
I knocked and called out a few times when nobody answered. Eugene was nervous and kept saying “I don’t think she’s here.”
“I dunno. That’s her car.” I tried to look through the peep-hole thing, which offered only a shadowy psychic impression of what was inside. I thought I saw something moving. It sounded like she was on the other side of the door.
“Hi – Zoe?” I called out again. It was weird trying to carry on a conversation this way.
“Zoe’s not here” whoever it was answered. It wasn’t Zoe.
“Hi – we’re old friends of Zoe’s.” I said. Eugene stood behind me, waiting, I guess.
“She’s not here.” Female voice.
“Do you know if she’s gonna be back soon?”
“She’s in India.”
“She’s in India.” By now I’d gotten the weird feeling that I wasn’t actually talking to anybody and that the house itself was blowing me off.
“Well, I’m her friend Toby, and her friend Eugene and I came from Seattle – well, Eugene came from Oregon…so, are you a housemate of hers? I mean, does she live here, when she’s not in, India, or - ”
The door started to rattle and we heard a deadbolt thing being undone. The door kept rattling, and another deadbolt slid open, then, I think, another. Then the door rattled some more, one of those chain things was slid off and the door opened. The face of a short, semi-familiar young woman stuck out at us and said “Eugene Cleveland?” She looked at Eugene, like I wasn’t there.
He said “Yeah.”
“I'm Shauna - Zoe's sister, remember?”
Eugene gave this weird look, like he was suddenly happy and embarassed. “Shauna! Wow! You're not, like, ten years old!”
“Yeah. We’re both real people now.”
Eugene took a step closer and said “Wow.” Then nobody said anything. Eugene straightened his back. Finally he started fidgeting with his feet and his hands, like he was standing on the high diving board. Shauna kept staring at him. Then she looked at me.
I said “Well, hi. Uh - we were looking for Zoe, 'cause we're on our way to Los Angeles, and we were hoping to see Zoe and maybe...well, we were originally hoping to crash here, if that's cool.”
Shauna pulled her head back and said “You can't stay here.” She looked at Eugene again.
“You don't want us to stay here?”
“I'm sorry - I can't sleep if there's someone else in the house.”
“Oh. Well…can we – “
Eugene interrupted me. “Do you want us to leave?”
Shauna stuck her head further out, then opened the door to reveal the pajama bottoms and slippers she was wearing underneath her sweater. Strangely cute. She stepped into the doorway, then back a step, then back into the doorway. “Well, hang on. Do you wanna...well, do you know where you're going to stay tonight?”
Eugene glanced over to me, like I was supposed to know what to do. This was making me crazy. I felt like we all had to use the bathroom and no one would admit it. I said “Well…if we're not gonna stay here, we probably gotta keep moving for another few hours.”
Shauna took a step out the door. “Do you need to leave right away?”
I didn’t know why I was confused. I shrugged. We all looked back and forth at each other for long enough to notice how long it was taking.
Finally Shauna said “Uh….come in.” About time. It’s not like I hadn’t been there before.
Five minutes later we were sitting on the living room floor, leaning against the couches, batting a balloon back and forth. “I’m not working for a temp agency. I’m working at a temp agency,” Shauna said.
“You mean, you're a permanent employee of a temporary employment agency?” Eugene asked.
“Sounds like me,” I said. I felt like I was interrupting every time I spoke.
“How long have you been there?” Eugene asked.
“Four months. So, how long are you going to be in Los Angeles?”
“We're moving there,” I said.
“You're moving there?”
I looked at Eugene, then tried to sound as serious as possible. “We’re going to Hollywood to become famous screenwriters.”
Shauna pulled her head back and looked down for a second. “Can I ask a delicate question?
“Don't take this the wrong way, but is there such a thing as a famous screenwriter?”
“We're prepared to be the first.” She missed some part of my point. It was too much too explain.
“Did you study screenwriting in college?”
“No, but I've read a lot of Joseph Campbell.”
“Uh huh,” Shauna exhaled. She looked back at Eugene.
“I sold a TV script once,” I pointed out. She turned back and looked more impressed.
“Oh,cool. So,you guys have a bunch of money saved up?”
Eugene had been looking back and forth at each of us. “We're not that organized” he said, looking back at me.
“We've gotta hit the pavement running when we get there,” I added.
“So, are you gonna stay with friends while you're down there?”
“Don't know anybody.”
“So where will you live?”
Eugene looked back and forth at Shauna and me, saying “We haven't gotten there yet.”
“But you've gotta have a plan for where you're going to stay.”
“I think the plan is to improvise.”
“Improvising isn't something you plan. It's something you do when your plan falls through.”
Now Eugene looked serious, or sad, or some combination I hadn’t seen in him before. “We're doing this because all our plans already fell through.”
I was getting sick of this. “I’m thinking of this move as…skydiving.”
“Without the parachute,” Eugene said. He wasn’t helping.
“Mm-hmm,” Shauna said. I wasn’t sure if she agreed or not. “Well, you know, I can respect your adventurousness. It just sounds…kind of crazy.”
I smiled. “Gotta do something crazy once in a while.”
“No, I don't mean ha-ha crazy. I mean like bad-idea crazy.”
There was another moment of silence.
“Wait 'til you see Toby's car. You'll love it.” Eugene was suddenly enjoying himself too much.
“Why will I love it?”
“'Cause it's hilarious.”
“How is it hilarious?”
“It's like a...rolling...sinus infection. It smells like wet shoes. It's disgusting.”
“Sounds very endearing.”
I didn’t know if I should argue or play along. I said “It’s not that bad.”
Eugene asked “So did you come to Humboldt 'cause of your sister?
“I came here – “ she looked at both of us, then spoke to Eugene again – “'cause of my ex-boyfriend.”
Now suddenly Eugene was mister compassionate-yet-low-key. This was grating. “Did he live here already, or – “
“He's never been here.”
For a minute, all focused on the balloon, kicked and tapped slowly up and down between us.
“So what's your sister doing in India?” I asked.
“She sent me a postcard saying she was learning to cope with her feelings of resentment toward suburban sprawl.”
“I always liked her.”
Shauna smirked. “She's just being a tourist. Eugene, did you ever do anything with that comic book thing you used to write?”
“I stopped doing that a while ago.”
“You won, like, a national award for one of those.”
“Yeah. That's when I stopped doing it.”
“So why'd you stop?”
“I don't know.”
“Eugene – “ I stepped in. “We should probably be working on the car if we're not gonna be staying here.”
“What do you have to do?” Shauna asked.
“Put in some oil. Replace the starter.”
“Does it have to be done now?”
“Yeah it does. I couldn't find a hill to park on.”
Shauna looked back and forth at Eugene and myself. “Do you both need to work on that?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, I need to return some videos and I don't like to walk down there by myself.”
It was pretty dark outside, but with the big flashlight I could see well enough. I’d changed the starter twice before, anyway, and this time I had the right bolts. It took it as a good omen when I dumped a quart of oil into the engine and none of it spilled through to the concrete.
Eugene and Shauna walked off to the video store together. I knew they liked each other, but independent of that it seemed like I’d already fucked up any chance I ever had with Shauna and I had no idea how I’d done it. I’d known her since she was nine years old, which you’d think would translate into some kinda residual admiration from afar, and something is just wrong in a world where Eugene can be pried out of his grandmother’s house and hook up with the first woman he’d spoken to in however many years while I’ve been out in the dating world all that time and I get treated like I have smallpox. I could at least take some credit for whatever thing they have together, of course. Dragging Eugene out of his isolation had been one of my goals; I just figured he’d succeed only after studying my example. That’s when I started to wonder if he had.
Shauna locked the house when they left and they took a long time at the store, so I was asleep in the car when they got back. I used to think of sleep as procrastination, something to be subconsciously avoided if possible. Now I don’t know if I’ve changed my mind, or just learned to procrastinate.
Eugene pounded on the car hood. Shauna had already disappeared inside.
“Toby – Shauna wants us to stay here tonight. We’re making dinner.” There was something strange about Eugene’s voice.
“What – she changed her mind?”
“She’s allowed to do that.”
“No, that’s good – I just thought she was being pretty…adamant.”
“Well, Shauna’s a very complicated person.” By now he was only speaking so he could keep saying her name. I don’t know why it pissed me off so much.
They’d bought some groceries and were already in the kitchen cutting things up when I came inside with my backpack. Now hungry as well as tired, I decided my main goal was to avoid embarassing myself by revealing my bitterness. I’d have been happy to stay in the car, in fact, if I wasn’t so angry about having been locked out of the house in the first place.
As I sat back on the couch, my sense of exhilaration returned. I was still transforming, still a cannonball in flight, busily paying the admission price into a much larger world. Maybe Eugene would only be a peripheral part of the life I had entered. Maybe I had already done every favor I would ever do for him. No matter: I was a wide-eyed screenwriter, dropped headfirst into a well of emotional authenticity and prepared to milk it for all it was worth. I opened my journal and brainstormed for ways to change the details so neither of my new characters would recognize themselves.
Once I’d started to look at their instant rapport as a victory for me, I decided it was pretty adorable to hear them talk. I found myself writing down some of what they said. I was…well, I was proud of Eugene. Suddenly he was acting like I wanted myself to act as a man, like every step he took was not an apology for the space he was occupying. Finally it just made me sad, for all the reasons I’d left Seattle, and all the reasons I hadn’t left Seattle earlier than I did. I wanted to slip out and drive away, right then, like a ghost that had done its work and moved on to the next world. They wouldn’t even notice I was gone. Eugene had nothing of value in my car anyway.
I stopped scribbling in my journal when Shauna’s voice got quieter and more dramatic. “We were going pretty fast,” she said, “like thirty miles an hour. And when I came down, the back of my head hit the curb.”
“Were you in the hospital?” - that was Eugene.
“For a week. They wouldn't let me on the plane until it stabilized.”
“Can you smell anything?”
“Everything smells like garlic.”
“Do you like garlic?”
“I used to.”
Now Eugene lifted something from the table. “So this smells like garlic?”
“You think you're gonna cure me?”
Shauna asked “What's it smell like?”
“Smells like an orange.”
“Well, tell me what it smells like.”
“It's…uh…(sniff)…sweet...(sniff)...like, uh, citrussy…(sniff)…smells like...it’s been sitting around too long.”
“Yeah, it’s been there a while.”
They went back to cutting stuff up without saying anything and I started writing again, afraid they’d catch me if I didn’t. It’s not like they didn’t know I was there. I couldn’t really write anything anyway.
“What are you guys going to do when you get to Los Angeles?”
“I'm tempted to say I don't care.”
“Well, if you did care, what would you do when you got there?”
“We're going to be writing some things together. We'll get jobs. I think we're going to do all that stuff we talked about doing when we were kids.”
“You don’t think it’s kinda flakey to go down there without a plan?”
“Well, this is kinda the opposite of flakey. Toby’s so ambitious he can’t chew his food.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m afraid these ambitions you guys have aren’t going to be well served by the approach you’re taking. Like, you’re going to get down there and nothing’s going to be any different from the way it was before you left.”
Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang
Columns by Betsy Shebang